Know Your Plants: Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac

If you’re like most people, a leaf looks like a leaf to you. But if you’re going to be out and about, either hiking, BBQing in other people’s backyards or hanging at the playground, knowing your leaves is going to be very handy. The top three poisonous plants in the U.S. are poison ivy, sumac and oak. There are a few rhymes to help you and your kids remember how to identify them. If you do brush up against some itch-causing leaves, there are some things you can do right away to minimize the effects.

poison ivy
(Photo: Poison ivy likes to grow on top of something or along a broad surface.)


Ivy (pictured above) likes to grow on top of something or along a broad surface; think fence lines, tree trunks, even hills of grass. It likes to be near water or more moist areas that are shaded. It usually has three leaves, so use the rhyme, “leaves of three, let them be.”

If you brush up against poison ivy, it’s important to understand that your skin will react exactly where the oil of the plant touched you. The oil is called urushiol. If you’re near your house, run inside and strip down, hop in the shower and rinse yourself with cool water and a mild soap. Do not try to bleach your skin or scrub abrasively. Once you break out, you are not contagious. Only the oil can cause the reaction and once it’s gone, so is the threat. You might have more areas pop up later on, but that’s just because your immune system fights it differently on different body parts. 

>> Read more: 10 Secrets to Healthy Skin

Be aware that your pets and yard tools can come into contact with the oil and spread it to you. So, wipe them down to be cautious.

If you do break out, the FDA recommends finding relief from over-the-counter ointments, cool, wet compresses and zinc oxide creams. If the itching or swelling becomes unbearable, your doctor can prescribe a steroid cream. Fevers, tenderness, yellowing of the sores and irritability that keeps you from sleeping or working are all signs you need to call your doctor. Click here if you're planning to send your kid to camp this summer.

poison sumac
(Photo: Poison sumac plants have about a dozen leaves with smooth edges on each branch. Photo Credit: Poison Ivy)


This plant isn’t quite as common, but it still pops up in America’s backyard. Poison sumac plants have about a dozen leaves with smooth edges on each branch. They like to grow upright and will often resemble a small sapling. Sumac might have tiny white flowering parts, or a light green-yellow in bud form. The stems will appear reddish, and you can find these plants more easily in very wet areas. Sumac grows from the northern states of Wisconsin to Maine, down the East Coast and west through Louisiana. (via Poison Ivy) 

Unfortunately, there’s no rhyme for this one (but we’d love to hear your ideas!). If you bump into it, use the same protocol as poison ivy: Strip and wash your clothing and rinse yourself with cool water and a mild soap.

>> Be prepared: DIY Complete First-Aid Travel Kit

The rash will appear red and streaky. Use over-the-counter ointments to treat it – anything with zinc or calamine, and try an antibiotic cream to reduce risk of infection as the blisters open. In the fall, the leaves tend to change colors, too: red, sometimes yellow or orange.

poison oak
(Photo: Just like poison ivy, poison oak grows in leaves of three, sometimes five.)


Just like poison ivy, it grows in leaves of three, sometimes five. The leaves are shiny and slightly fuzzy. It’s more commonly found to the west of the Rocky Mountains. People with paler skin tend to experience reactions more severely, and if you do have a reaction, it can show up within an hour. It lasts about a week or two in a pink, streaky rash. Try natural ingredients for common skin issues.

Treat it with the over-the-counter ointments and cool, wet compresses. Contact your doctor if you develop a fever or the rash becomes painful.


NEVER ever burn these plants. The oils can seriously harm your respiratory system. To get rid of the plants, you can pick up some specific chemical plant killers. If you’re a bit more conscious of the environment, you can get a goat to eat it. But really, a vinegar spray or a mix of salt, water and dish soap in a spray bottle will work.

About 10 percent of the population will not have a reaction to these plants. The rest of the population will have rashes for one to three weeks. Stock your first aid kits this summer!