Infographic: Learn to identify poison ivy, oak and sumac


April 26, 2016

04_30 Poison Ivy

If you are exposed to these poisonous plants, we’ve got some tips for treating the itch.

Plenty of outdoor adventures await us this spring and summer in the Mid-South, but if you don’t pay attention to the foliage, you could end up with a nasty rash. Here’s what you need to know if you do meet up with poison ivy, oak or sumac.


“When the oils of the plant touch the skin, it causes the immune system to rev up and cause the rash,” says Deb McCroskey, M.D., the director of Vanderbilt’s Walk-in Clinics. The contact dermatitis is the same for all three of these plants.

Exposure can occur from touching a plant or a contaminated object like tools, a fence post, gloves, pet fur or another person’s skin. If oils have been washed from a person’s skin, that person is not contagious.

Never burn these plants. Smoke inhalation from them can cause a reaction to people nearby and downwind, according to MedlinePlus.

If you think you have touched poison ivy, oak or sumac, wash your skin immediately with soap and water. Scrub under fingernails with a brush. Launder clothing and shoes in hot water.

The rash

“The rash usually first appears as a streak of itchy blisters on the forearm, leg or face, depending on the exposure,” McCroskey says. “Each person’s immune system and each rash is different. It may stay as a small streak for a few weeks then resolve. Or, at the other extreme, it may spread all over the body and drive the patient crazy with the itch.”

Once the oil has been washed off, scratching does not spread the rash, but it may lead to infection from dirt or germs under the fingernails.


If the reaction is mild, over-the-counter medications like topical steroid creams and Benadryl tablets will do the trick. Avoid topical Benadryl, which may make it worse, McCroskey says. Also avoid bleach, which can cause skin burns, and avoid hot showers and baking soda, both of which may increase the itch.

If the reaction is severe, a prescription steroid might be beneficial. “Your medical provider will take conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and immune-compromising illnesses and medications into account before prescribing steroids,” McCroskey says. “It is important to keep in touch with your healthcare provider if the rash doesn’t seem to be responding or if it recurs after stopping the medication.”

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