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Poison Oak, Sumac and Ivy: The Itch That Keep on Scratching

Tecnu outdoors can be a lifesaver for that itchy itch!

Summer is officially here which means hiking and backpacking are underway, but temperatures and rattlesnakes are not the only precautions we all must look out for on the trails during summer, summertime is the prime season for poison oak, ivy and sumac. We may have all heard the saying, “leaves of three let them be” and although this is a great precaution, poison oak and ivy can look different in the fall compared to the summer. For example, we are probably used to seeing green shrubs or vines with leaves of three on them but did you know that poison oak and ivy could also come in reds and brown, especially during the fall?   Did you also know that dogs are not susceptible to the rashes caused by poison oak or ivy but their fur will carry the oils, which has potential to harm you? Yep, these plants themselves are not really poisonous but rather it is the sticky, long-lasting oil called urishiol that causes a blistering and painful rash after it touches your skin. This means that this oil can get on your clothes, sleeping bags and backpack if your gear or pant legs rub up against the plants and once your skin touches these materials, you are very susceptible to a breakout.  As a rule of thumb, I try to wear long pants, wash my clothes after big trips, change into my long underwear before I enter my tent and scrub myself down with the Poison oak, ivy and sumac line from Tecnu outdoors as soon as I get into the shower to lessen the chances of enduring a painful blistering rash.

Poison oak

Like poison ivy, poison oak has intense green leaves with differing amounts of red color during the year. It also grows in clusters of three. Poison oak leaves are a bit different than poison ivy leaves. They’re more rounded, less pointy, and have a textured, hair-like surface. Poison oak grows as a low shrub in Eastern and Southern states, but as a long vine or tall clump on the West Coast.

Poison ivy

Poison ivy is a vine with leaves growing in clusters of threes. It usually grows close to the ground, but it can also grow on trees or rocks as a vine or small shrub. The leaves are somewhat pointed. They have an intense green color that can be yellowish or reddish at certain times of the year, and are sometimes shiny with urushiol oil. Poison ivy grows in most parts of the United States, other than Alaska, Hawaii, and some parts of the West Coast.

Poison sumac

Poison sumac also grows as a tall shrub or small tree. Unlike poison ivy and poison oak, its leaves grow on stems with groups of 7 to 13 leaves that appear as pairs. Poison sumac leaves are reddish green. The plant also grows small, whitish-green hanging berries. There’s an almost identical sumac with red, upright berries that’s harmless. Poison sumac is common in the eastern United States.

The rash

It forms within 24 to 72 hours of contact, depending on where the plant touched you. It usually peaks within a week, but can last as long as 3 weeks. A rash from poison ivy, oak, or sumac looks like patches or streaks of red, raised blisters. The rash doesn’t usually spread unless urushiol is still in contact with your skin.

Treatment and prevention

If you do come into skin contact with poison oak, sumac or ivy or if you develop a rash there are some great products on the market that can help prevent and/or soothe the blistering painful rash before it comes. Tecnu makes a great line of poison oak, ivy and sumac products that help remove the urushoil oil from your skin and provides relief from the burning and itching caused by the rash.

  • Tecnu skin outdoor cleanser: Can be used on skin, clothing, tools and pets to remove oil and sap. I have actually used with on my dog, Moo after a skunk sprayed her and it did a great job of removing the smell.

  • Tecnu extreme: If you suspect you have been in contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac, this is the recommended product. This all over body scrub should be applied all over the affected as soon as possible.

  •  Tecnu rash relief spray: This spray helps relieve the painful itching that is caused by poisonous plants and can also help dry the oozing that is commonly caused by poison oak, ivy and sumac. I have also used this for sunburns, bug bites and scrapes from nasty ocean coral to relieve itching and burning.

  • Tecnu calagel: I carry travel sized packets of this amazing stuff in my first-aid kit always as it relieves itching and burning caused by plants, insects or any other of Mother Nature’s critters that can cause itching and burning.

  • Bentoquatam aka Ivy Block: This is a great prevention cream (not a Tecnu product) and should be applied 15 minutes to arms and legs before you may be exposed to a poisonous plant. Bentoquatam is a barrier between the skin and the urushoil oil and can prevent a skin rash if you do come into contact with poison oak, ivy or sumac.

If you acquire a rash from poison oak, ivy or sumac it is important to stay out of the sun, do not scratch the affected area as it can potentially cause scarring and infection, and keep the are clean, dry and cool. Calamine lotion, diphenhydramine, or hydrocortisone can help control itching. Cool compresses or baths with baking soda or oatmeal can also soothe the rash. If you notice intense oozing, redness, swelling or signs of infection, you may need to see a doctor as these rashes can potentially become infected.   Check out my blog I wrote last summer for a quick and dirty guide to safety on everything summer in the outdoors!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Kristen Fuller

Explorer of cliffs, mountains, oceans, and deserts by day and night.