poison ivy

Poisonous Plants: How to Avoid Them and Treat Rashes from Them

The sun is out, and spending time outside is a great way to enjoy the last stretch of the summer. However, it’s important to be careful when you are outside because there are a variety of poisonous plants that you may come into contact with – like poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. We’re going to give you some information so that you can better protect yourself and your loved ones from coming into contact with any of these poisonous plants, and know how to treat it if you ever do.

How You Get Rashes from Poisonous Plants

Ever wonder how you got a rash from touching such a small plant? Each of the poisonous plants above secretes urushiol oil onto its roots, stem, and leaves. Once in contact with the skin, this oil often causes anywhere between a mild to severe rash*, itching, and blisters. Each person has a different level of sensitivity to the urushiol oil, and touching it more than once can also increase the chances of dealing with a worse rash. Physical contact is not the only way to get this rash. Burning these plants could result in the oil spreading through the air by it coating the soot. This coating could come into contact with your skin, but also areas that aren’t typically touched by the sap (eyes, nostrils, throat, or even inhaled into the respiratory system).

*These rashes are not contagious and cannot be spread person to person. While the oil will stay on any surfaces it has come into contact with (unless washed with water or rubbing alcohol), simply touching someone else’s rash will not cause you to get a rash as well.

What Poisonous Plants Look Like

In the southeastern United States, poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac all grow in the area. The best way to avoid getting the rash and blisters is to not touch the plant.

Poison Ivy: Each leaf on poison ivy has three leaflets that appear glossy. The edges of these leaves can be either smooth or toothed. Furthermore, these leaves also can appear as different in color when in different seasons. During the spring, the leaves appear reddish in color, and during the summer the leaves are green. The leaves are even present during autumn, and can be yellow, red, or orange. Also, poison ivy can grow as a vine or shrub that appears to trail the ground or climb low plants, trees or poles.

Poison Oak: The leaves appear fuzzy and green and are in groups of three. These leaves are deeply toothed with rounded tips. Typically they grow as a low shrub; however, on the Pacific Coast they have been known to grow in tall clumps or long vines.

Poison Sumac: This poisonous plant grows as a small shrub in bogs or swamps. These leaves have clusters of 7-13 smooth-edged leaflets growing along the stem. Like poison ivy, these leaves can appear different in color depending on the season. During the spring, the leaves are orange, but during the summer they are green. These plants are also present in the fall and can be yellow, orange, or red at that point.

How to Treat Rashes from Poisonous Plants

After a few weeks, the effects of poison ivy will subside without any treatment. During that time, do not scratch the blisters as this could lead to infection. So how do you calm the itching without scratching? Applying wet compresses or submerging the afflicted area in cool water can help. You can also get prescription oral corticosteroids or over-the-counter topical corticosteroids to alleviate that itching feeling. You may want to see a health care professional if you observe any of the following symptoms:

  • You have a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • There is pus, soft yellow scabs, or tenderness on the rash.
  • The itching gets worse or keeps you awake at night.
  • The rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin area.
  • The rash is not improving within a few weeks.
  • The rash is widespread and severe.
  • You have difficulty breathing.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, we recommend either visiting your nearest Urgent Care location or MinuteClinic.

If you aren’t experiencing any severe pain, a MinuteClinic can be a good alternative to visit in order to help keep the rash down and prevent infection.

However, if you are in pain, going to a local Urgent Care can help reduce inflammation and provide access to a medical professional who can treat the infection.

The Emory Healthcare Network partners with MinuteClinic locations and Peachtree Immediate Care urgent care locations throughout metro Atlanta and surrounding communities. You can find one close to you here.

As always, if you feel you are in a life-threatening situation, go to the nearest Emergency Department or call 911. When in doubt, don’t hesitate to call your PCP or the Emory HealthConnection at 404-778-7777 and speak to an Emory nurse for assistance.

About Dr. Colovos

Nick Colovos, MD, received his degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1993, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, in 1996. His work experiences in the academic, public and private sectors of medical care have allowed him to develop a unique perspective on the business of healthcare and its delivery to patients. He currently serves as medical director for the Emory Healthcare Urgent Care and MinuteClinic Strategy and assistant clinical professor of Emergency Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia.