Rashes resulting from exposure to poison ivy, oak, and sumac can give anyone the summertime blues. In fact, approximately 50 million people suffer from the itch and discomfort associated with these types of poisonous vegetation each year. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to identify and avoid these irritants and protect your skin.

Identifying Poisonous Plants

Ever heard the saying, "Leaves of three, let them be"? It's a good way to spot poison ivy, but it doesn't account for its equally itchy cousins. To effectively avoid these plants look for the following characteristics:

  • Poison Ivy:

    This summer rash culprit is commonly found in the East and Midwest regions of the United States. The plants normally have three leaves; however, some can have as many as nine. They often produce green leaves, which become red in the fall, and white berries. Poison ivy may also take the form of a rope-like vine wrapped around a tree truck.

  • Poison Oak:

    Poison oak is found on both coasts and can grow in free-standing clumps or in vines. The leaves resemble those of the oak tree, and the plant often has clusters of yellow berries.
  • Poison Sumac:

    The third member of this toxic trio is found in marshy areas of the Southeast. Poison sumac often grows in tall shrubs, and it typically has between seven and 13 pale green leaves.

The allergic reaction these plants cause is due to urushiol, the active chemical present on their surface. Urushiol is very potent; in fact, the amount of urushiol that fits on the head of pin is enough to make 500 people itch. Exposure to the chemical often results in contact dermatitis, which accounts for 50 percent of all occupational illnesses, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Stopping the Itch Before It Starts

Although avoiding direct contact is the gold standard for preventing poison ivy, oak, and sumac rashes, it doesn't guarantee you won't get it. Because of the plants' frailty and urushiol's potency, stems broken by animals or the wind can result in a breakout. Your pet's fur could even transfer urushiol to you. Here are a few easy ways to steer clear of these poisonous plants:

  • Knock 'em dead.
  • If you have one or more of these plants present in your back yard, an over-the-counter herbicide can be used to kill them. A mixture of water and bleach can also do the trick. Do not burn the plants because urushiol can become airborne, resulting in severe lung irritation.

  • Cover up.
  • If you know you will be in the woods-camping, hiking, or hunting-wear long sleeves, pants, gloves, and boots. This will prevent any poisonous plants from coming into direct contact with the skin.

  • Wash up.
  • Even though you were covered from head to toe on your stroll through the forest, you still may have been exposed. The plants' oil sticks to almost all surfaces and does not dry. Be sure to immediately separate the clothes worn outdoors from your others, and wash them thoroughly.

  • Watch your pets.
  • Try not to let your pets run through the woods. Urushiol can easily stick to their fur and be brought into the home.

What to Do After Exposure

Urushiol can penetrate the skin quickly-in as few as 10 minutes. If you do come into contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac, the FDA suggests the following steps.

  • Immediately wash your skin after initial exposure to remove the oil.
  • Clean any exposed skin with rubbing alcohol.
  • Take a regular shower with soap and warm water.

If itchy bumps do appear, here are a few ways follow these dos and don'ts to ease your symptoms:

  • Do use over-the-counter products.
  • Lotions such as calamine, zinc oxide, and hydrocortisone can be used to relieve the itch and dry the rash. Soaks such as Domeboro solution and oatmeal baths may also soothe and dry the rash effectively.

  • Do consult with a doctor.
  • A doctor should be consulted in cases where rashes have spread to the eyes or genitals. The doctor may prescribe a low-grade, oral steroid and a steroid cream. What's more, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends that people who have had severe reactions in the past contact a dermatologist as soon as possible after a new exposure.

  • Do not scratch.
  • Although the blisters themselves do not contain urushiol—contrary to the myth that scratching spreads the rash—scratching can lead to infection. Fingernails are a notorious hotspot for dirt and germs, and scratching an open sore can result in further pains.

  • Do not use products such as gasoline or bleach.
  • It may sound ridiculous, but some people believe that these products can dry out blisters. No research has proven that these methods are effective, and some research even suggests that they can lead to further inflammation.