Avoiding the Big Three: Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, and Poison Sumac
Spring, summer, or fall, we love a good day outdoors and on the trail. We’ve found that the more we explore, the more adventurous we get. And sometimes the path less travelled just tells us to search for a better view or a top-secret swimming hole that could be just around the corner.
It’s important to be thoughtful and safe when adventuring beyond the trail. And we know a thing or two about potential hazards that you can easily run into when off the beaten path. Now, we’re not talking obvious, run-of-the mill stuff like precipitous drop offs, raging rivers, or rattlesnakes. We’re talking about the little stuff that doesn't exactly scream “danger.” Things like poisonous plants. Yep, unassuming greenery can cause itchy rashes and otherwise mess with your plans for days or even weeks to come.
So next time you are tempted to bushwhack off the trail to get down to the river or for a shortcut to your destination (who doesn’t love a shortcut?), keep your eyes peeled for the following:
The Big Three - Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, & Poison Sumac
While they are three different plants, poison oak, ivy, and sumac are like cousins. And even a casual encounter with any one of them can cause an irritating skin rash. The culprit is something called urushiol oil. It’s found in the leaves, stems, and roots of all three. The urushiol is actually present year round, so it’s best to avoid even the bare, leafless stems in fall and winter!
The good news is that you can learn to identify all three and even anticipate their favorite places to grow. You also have an hour or two to wash away the oil after it gets on your skin. In fact, you don’t really even need anything fancy to wash it away. Dish soap does a great job of breaking down the oil, which will reduce the chances of having a reaction.
Now for the bad news. You might not know whether you were exposed or successfully washed away the oil for several days. That’s because the rash normally takes three to five days to materialize. The response to urushiol varies from person to person. The tell-tale sign is small itchy bumps that often weep and ooze (yuck!) when scratched. Urushiol is so tenacious that you can get a rash from touching clothing, skin, or even pets that are carrying traces of it. So it’s critical to do an extra-careful cleanup when you have known exposure.
Relatively minor cases of poison ivy, oak, or sumac normally run their course in three to five days. The rash and its weepy bumps won’t lead to additional spread, but remember your stuff could still have nasty oil on it! Be sure to thoroughly wash any clothing, hiking poles, or other gear you used that day.
If you have a case of poison oak, ivy, or sumac, over-the-counter ointments and salves may help reduce itching. But you’ll need to let it run its natural course. Some people react more severely than others. If you have a severe reaction (or think you’ve had internal exposure through accidentally ingesting it or breathing it in through smoke), you should seek professional medical attention as quickly as possible.
KEEN tip: Antiseptic towelettes make for effective cleaning in the field. Keep a bunch of these in your car or day pack to clean areas where you may have been exposed to the plant.
Here’s how to identify the Big Three (so you can keep your distance).
Pacific Poison Oak: “Leaves of three, leave them be!”
Poison oak is found on the West Coast and has caught plenty of unsuspecting hikers off guard. The most basic way to recognize poison oak is to be on alert for oak tree-like shaped leaves that grow in groups of three. Poison oak comes in two varieties: ground and vine. The vine prefers the mixed sun/shade of the forest floor and often climbs nearby trees and branches elevating it off the ground. The ground variety takes on a more shrub-like appearance and prefers dry, sunny hillsides. The leaves are typically shiny or oily in appearance and turn red in late summer and fall.
Poison Ivy: “Hairy vine, no friend of mine!”
Poison ivy is found across North America, from the East Coast to large parts of the Western States. Like its cousins, even a casual encounter with the plant can cause an irritating skin rash. The most basic way to recognize poison ivy is to be on alert for a vine-like plant with leaves that grow in groups of three. Poison ivy leaves are more pointed than those of poison oak and feature the distinct characteristic of a hairy stem in combination with leaves of three.
Poison Sumac: “Red stems in spring, it’s a dangerous thing!”
Poison Sumac is found on the East Coast as well as the Southeastern and Northeastern States. It’s usually only found in wet, boggy areas. It grows as a wooded shrub that resembles a small tree. Unlike the three leaves of its cousins, poison sumac has from five to 13 leaves per stem with a single leaf at the end of each stem. The stems are red in the spring and fade to brown come fall and winter.
By all means, get adventurous and go off the beaten path when you feel comfortable. But always be on the alert for the little, less obvious things like poison plants that might make a great day out into a not-so-great experience. Technology is on your side. There are a number of plant identification apps available that help make identifying plants fast and easy. You can use them to identify the not-so-dangerous stuff like flowers, too!