Summertime Rashes: Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac
Coming into contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac can really put a damper on your summertime fun. People who are allergic to these plants can develop an extremely itchy, red skin rash with bumps and blisters. The oil from the poisonous plants is called urushiol and it adheres to whatever it touches (like skin, clothing, or pet hair) making it a nuisance even after you have left the plant far behind.
The rash is called contact dermatitis—an inflammatory response of the skin that occurs when it has come in contact with an allergen (a substance that may induce an allergic reaction). In the United States, contact with poison ivy, oak, and sumac are the most common cause of contact dermatitis. All are treatable, but sometimes extreme reactions occur. Call emergency medical services or go to an emergency room if you have trouble breathing or swallowing after exposure to these plants.
Ideally, the best step is to prevent any problems (mild or severe) from occurring in the first place. Before you head to the woods or sand dunes this summer, learn about this irritating trio of poisonous plants.
If you think you have been exposed, you have a short window of opportunity to prevent a rash from breaking out. It takes about 10 minutes for urushiol to seep into the skin. As soon as you realize that you may have come in contact with one of these plants, thoroughly wash the area with soap and water.
Anything that comes in contact with the urushiol has to be washed off to prevent repeat exposure. If you have come in contact or think you have come in contact with these plants wash all clothes in a washing machine. Urushiol can stay on clothes for a very long time if unwashed.
If you have a pet that came in contact with the plants, get them into a bath or shower and scrub with pet soap. If you can, make sure you wear disposable gloves so you do not get exposed to the urushiol. It is not likely your pet will be affected, but you can develop a rash if you touch your pet's fur.
You may want to remove the plants that exist near your home. Make sure to wear gloves while doing gardening work. Wash or dispose the gloves when you're done. Do not burn the plants. Smoke from the plants can be inhaled and cause shortness of breath and itchy, watery eyes.
Remember, you have a short window of time to take action. If you miss that window, there are ways to treat that itchy rash.
Last reviewedNovember 2014by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.