Staying Safe from Poisonous Plants

By Justin Powell

Enjoying a family hike in the forest can be a great way to connect with nature. However, touching certain plants can be bad for you and your kids. Poisonous plants like poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak are fairly common and coming in contact them can cause a bad allergic skin reaction. Being able to recognize and avoid these plants is an effective way to keep your family safe from severe discomfort.

All three of these plants are part of the sumac family and produce urushiol, a pale yellow oil that produces an allergic skin reaction on contact. Urushiol can be washed off before it is absorbed into the skin. However, about 50% of the urushiol you can come in contact with can be absorbed in the first ten minutes. Once absorbed, the oil can start damaging the skin and causing an adverse reaction. Urushiol can remain on surfaces for up to 5 years and dead plants can still cause a reaction.

Burning urushiol producing plants can also be very hazardous for families. Inhaling the smoke from burning these plants can cause a rash on the inside of the lungs - causing extreme pain or even fatal respiratory issues. If you are camping, be sure to check firewood to ensure there are vines attached.

Identifying Poison Ivy

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is a vine that grows in much of North American, including all U.S. states east of the Rocky Mountains, and parts of Asia. Poison ivy commonly grows in wooded areas, often along the edges where it can get more sun. It can also be found growing in rocky areas and open fields.

The poison ivy vine is easily identified since there is a main vine with individual stems branching off that each contain 3 almond-shaped leaves. The main vine may grow along the ground or up a tree, where it can develop a hairy appearance.

You can use these mnemonic rhymes to help identify poison ivy:

  • ”Leaves of three, let it be.” This rhyme also applies to poison oak and is a useful one to remember.
  • ”Hairy vine is no friend of mine.”

Identifying Poison Oak

Poison Oak grows primarily in the West Coast and Southeast potions of the United States. It resembles poison ivy in that the plant has a main vine that has individual stems which each contain 3 leaves. The leaves of poison oak differ from poison ivy and can resemble a rounded oak leaves. Often, the vine grows together a forms a bush.

Identifying Poison Sumac

Poison Sumac is found in swampy, boggy areas of the Eastern United States. It’s appearance differs from its relatives in that is a shrub and each stem contains 7-13 leaves that are arranged in pairs.

Preventing Urushiol Rash

Identifying and avoiding urushiol-producing plants is the most effective way to avoid an adverse reaction. However, avoiding plants is not always practical - especially if there are young family members involved who are naturally curious about their environment.

Families can help avoid being exposed to poisonous plants by:

  • Wear long sleeves and long plants if you are venturing into areas when you suspect poisonous plants may occur.
  • Wash your clothes immediately after venturing outdoors to wash off urushiol you may have come into contact with.
  • In the event that you or a family member comes into contact with a plant, immediately wash the skin with soap and water or alcohol wipes. You should rinse the affected area repeatedly to further dilute the urushiol and to avoid the cleaning agent drying and spreading the urushiol. Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can be used to reduce itching if a rash develops. In severe cases, you should seek medical attention.

Don’t let poisonous plants ruin a family outdoor adventure. A little knowledge can help you identify poisonous plants and avoid their threat. Keep your family safe from poisonous plants and enjoy your time outdoors together.

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