Poison ivy, oak, and sumac

Originally Published: September 4, 1998 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: May 18, 2007
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Dear Alice,

What are the symptoms of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac? Are they treatable with over-the-counter medications OR is a doctor visit required?

Dear Reader,

What an itchy situation to find yourself in. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac are caused by an allergic reaction to an oily substance produced by these plants called urushiol. Over 50 percent of people are allergic to it, experiencing an itchy, blistery rash within a day or two of coming into contact with these fragile, defensive plants. Poison Ivy is most common in the eastern United States, while Poison Oak is usually found west of the Rockies. Poison Sumac is quite abundant along the Mississippi River. Keep in mind, however, that there is cross over.

If you have the unfortunate luck of brushing elbows (or knees, fingers, legs, or any other body part) with one of the members of this troublesome threesome, look out for the tell-tale rash and incessant itching. You may get redness, slight swelling, or blisters, as well. Remember that you can also absorb the sap/oil from clothing or pets who have brushed against the plants, or may have a reaction if you've inhaled the smoke from burning Poison Ivy, Oak, or Sumac.

As soon as possible, remove all clothing and shoes which were touched, preferably while wearing protective gloves. Wash everything in hot water and a strong soap. Bathe pets thoroughly, too. Although the lucky critters rarely react themselves, they can carry the sap on their fur for days, thus passing it along to their owners. Wash your own skin with soap and water. You may want to apply rubbing alcohol to the affected area(s) with cotton balls, and then rinse again with water. Generally, the best treatment is time — the rash and itching should go away on its own in one to two weeks. Try to keep your hands away from your eyes, mouth, and face, and scratch as little as possible, as this will irritate the rash further and may introduce infection. You can apply calamine lotion, a zinc oxide ointment, or baking soda paste (3 tsp. soda to 1 tsp. water) to the affected area(s), or soak in an oatmeal bath, to relieve the symptoms somewhat. You could also try taking an over-the-counter antihistamine.

Some people also swear by over-the-counter homeopathic remedies. One of the most popular in this case is rhus tox, which is made from poison oak itself, encapsulating completely the homeopathic philosophy that "like cures like." Similar to all homeopathic remedies, the claims of which are not substantiated by research, take caution and keep your health care provider informed of what you are taking.

If you have any of the following after coming in contact with poison oak/ivy/sumac, seek emergency medical care right away:

  • swelling of the throat, tongue, or lips
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing
  • weakness or dizziness
  • bluish lips and/or mouth
  • unconsciousness (have a friend call)

If you have any of the following symptoms, consult with your health care provider:

  • severe redness
  • signs of infection, such as pus
  • rash in your mouth, eyes, or genital area
  • rash on a large portion of your body or face

Ultimately the decision on how to respond will depend on the individual reaction. Here's hoping the situation is over soon!