Are Poison Plants Ruining Your Summer Fun?
It’s summer again, and that means barbecue, beach, family road trips – and the danger of poison plants!
Millions of people go running to the pharmacy every year due to exposure to the three common causes of (sometimes extreme) skin irritation:
- Poison Ivy
- Poison Oak
- Poison Sumac
Don’t let exposure to any of these dangerous plants derail your fun weekend or summer vacation trip; keep reading and learn about what you should know, how you can avoid exposure, and what to do if it happens to you.
Recognizing Poison Plants
The first step to dealing with poison plants is, of course, learning how to avoid them in the first place! Let’s take a look at each of the three most common poisonous plants and learn where they grow and what they look like.
Known scientifically as Toxicodendron radicans, this plant is commonly referred to as eastern poison ivy or simply poison ivy. It’s a poisonous North American flowering plant known for causing urushiol-induced contact dermatitis (an itchy, and frequently painful rash) in most people who touch it.
Urushiol is a clear liquid compound in the sap of the most common poison plants.
Poison ivy is easily recognized by its three broad, spoon-shaped leaves, giving rise to the famous saying: “Leaves of three, let it be.”
Strangely enough, despite its name, it’s not an ivy, but a member of the cashew and pistachio family!
Poison sumac is also called Toxicodendron vernix, and it’s a woody shrub that can grow up to 30 ft tall. Poison sumac is also known as thunderwood in the southern parts of the U.S.
It can be recognized by its clusters of small white fruit and smooth-edged leaves with pointed tips; there are usually 7 to 13 leaflets on each leaf stem. It grows in woody, wet areas from Florida up to the Northern states.
The problem with Atlantic poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens) is that it looks virtually identical to poison ivy, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.
Genuine Atlantic poison oak is much less common than common poison ivy.
It prefers to grow in dry and sandy areas. It has been spotted (infrequently) in the Northeastern U.S., but is usually found farther south and west. The easiest way to distinguish between poison ivy and poison oak is by looking at the berries which are always fuzzy!
How to Defend Yourself against Poison Plants
We always here that the best defense is a good offense – unfortunately, this isn’t possible beyond your backyard; where you use any of a variety of weed-killers intended to eliminate a poison plant infestation.
So, how to best protect yourself from poison plants while enjoying the great outdoors?
If you’re going hiking through dense woods where you will frequently have to move through brushy areas that could hide a nasty, skin irritating surprise: Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, and boots that reach over the ankle. Skin that is covered up will not contact urushiol-bearing plants.
Although it may feel uncomfortable in warm weather – wearing gloves when going into any area with heavy plant cover will always prevent finger and palm irritation from inadvertent contact with poisonous plants.
Keep an eye out! I’ve included pictures and descriptions of the common poison plants. Learn to recognize them on sight so as to avoid any contact whenever possible.
What to do When You’ve Been Exposed
Urushiol is an oil and the best way to mitigate the skin damage that it causes is by washing it off as quickly as possible after you’ve been exposed. While soap and water are effective at removing most of this substance; there are specialty urushiol cleansers like Tecnu and Zanfel (available in almost every pharmacy).
A less expensive option is to purchase basic pine-tar soap and use it liberally over the exposed areas as soon as possible after you’ve been in contact with any poison plants.
5 Steps for When it’s too Late
What do you do when it’s too late?
Regardless of your best efforts; you’re suffering from a severe case of contact dermatitis. How can you feel better?
- Cool the affected area with a hand towel soaked in cold water or wrapped around ice for 15 to 20 minutes at a time.
- Soak in an oatmeal bath. Regular oatmeal has anti-inflammatory properties that will relieve itching and soothe blisters
- Echinacea, when taken as a supplement or in a drink can (possibly) lower histamine reactions – reducing your levels of discomfort
- Calamine lotion is an old standby that will reduce itching and bring your discomfort down to bearable levels.
- Wait. It’s true that time cures most ills. Once your skin has been damaged by urushiol, it will have to slowly heal on its own. In the most severe cases, there will be considerable peeling and flaking of dead, damaged skin – but urushiol caused dermatitis will almost never leave scarring.
Be Aware and Take Precautions
Be mindful of the fact that going into wooded areas will always involve some degree of risk to your skin from poison plants. Take suitable precautions such as:
- Wearing long sleeves and pants
- Using gloves when touching plants in your backyard or on the hiking trail
- Wear over the ankle walking boots
- Keep an urushiol cleaning agent handy
- Always have calamine lotion and oatmeal available for the quickest possible relief following exposure.
And, of course, learn to recognize theses dangerous plants on sight. The best way to deal with the common poison plants is by avoiding them altogether!