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Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac: A Photo Survival Guide

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy, or toxicodendron radicans, is found in both North America and Asia. It grows in vines or shrubs, and its leaves can either have notched or smooth edges. Regardless, they are usually clustered in groups of three.  


Poison Oak

Poison oak, or toxicodendron rydbergii, is most commonly found west of the Rocky Mountains, usually in small bushes, but sometimes as a climbing vine. The leaves have smooth edges and will grow in clusters of three, five, or seven. 


Poison Sumac

Poison sumac, known scientifically as toxicodendron vernix, is most commonly found in the wet areas of the southeast United States. The leaves will typically be smooth and oval-shaped, with seven to thirteen leaves growing together per stem. 


Rash Characteristics

Rash severity depends on how much of your skin comes into contact with the plants. Redness, bumps, and, in severe cases, even blisters are all common characteristics. These typically appear within a few hours of contact, although it may be up to a week if it's your first exposure. Read on for some of the best rash treatment options. 


Photo by Paige Hamm, 2012, CC BY-ND 2.0

Calamine Lotion

Very mild rashes may go away on their own without treatment. However, if you want to reduce your itchiness, wash the affected area with cool water (to remove the plant's poisonous oils) and apply calamine lotion, which can be purchased over-the-counter. 



For more severe rashes, over-the-counter antihistamines may be necessary. Some popular ones include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin), and cetirizine (Zyrtec). A common side effect for all these products is drowsiness, so use caution when taking them. 


Prescription Treatments

In rare cases, prescription treatments may be necessary to eliminate symptoms. Doctors will generally recommend oral steroids, such as prednisone, for very severe rashes. 


Rash Prevention

The best way to avoid rashes is by correctly identifying poison ivy, oak, and sumac plants and avoiding them. However, keeping your eyes constantly peeled for these itchy offenders is not always practical, so be sure to wear protective clothing when outdoors as well—such as long sleeves and gloves. 


Deadly Allergic Reactions

If you're severely allergic to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, there's a good chance contact with them could lead to a life-threatening reaction. In addition to a widespread rash, you may also experience difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, and swelling around the nose and mouth. If this occurs, you should immediately seek emergency medical attention. 


Photo by Adam Rosenberg, 2010, CC BY-SA 2.0