First aid: Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac

What are they?

Poison ivy grows primarily as a vine except in the Great Lakes region, where it grows as a shrub. Poison sumac grows in standing water, and poison oak primarily grows as a shrub except in the West, where it may be found as a vine. All of these can cause a rash from the oil found in the sap of these plants. The rash, which is a type of allergic reaction, is actually caused by the body's reaction to the oil rather than by the oil itself.

What are the symptoms?

For someone to react to the oil, they first have to be sensitized to it. In other words, we are not born with this allergy; rather, the body first becomes sensitized to the oil after repeated exposure to it. Only after this sensitization does the rash appears after the next exposure. And if a long period of time goes by between exposures, a person's sensitivity may decrease so much that the next time they come in contact with the plant, no reaction occurs. The symptoms consist of a weepy red rash of the skin, which can cause intense itching.

What can/should be done at home

If you come in contact with plant:

  • Wash all exposed areas with cold running water as soon as possible. Soap is not necessary because water inactivates the oil.
  • Wash all clothing outside with a hose before bringing it inside. Handle the clothing as little as possible until it is soaking wet. Because the oil may remain active for months, be aware of all objects that may have been exposed to it.
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