Poison ivy, oak, or sumac poisoning is an allergic reaction that results from touching the sap of these plants. The sap may be on the plant, in the ashes of burned plants, on an animal, or on other objects that came in contact with the plant, such as clothing, garden tools, and sports equipment.
Small amounts of sap can remain under a person's fingernails for several days unless it is deliberately removed with very good cleaning.
This family of plants (Toxicodendron) is hardy and difficult to eradicate. They are found in every state of the continental United States. They grow best along cool streams and lakes and luxuriate if it is also sunny and hot. They do not grow in Alaska or Hawaii, and do not survive well above 1500 m (5000 feet), in deserts, or in rainforests.
This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
One poisonous ingredient is the chemical urushiol.
- Bruised roots, stems, flowers, leaves, fruit
- Pollen of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac
Note: This list may not be all-inclusive.
- Burning skin
- Redness of the skin
In addition to the skin, symptoms can affect the eyes and mouth.
The rash may be spread by touching undried sap and moving it around the skin.
Wash the area immediately with soap and water. Quickly washing the area can prevent a reaction, but it doesn't usually help if done more than 1 hour after touching the plant's sap. Flush the eyes out with water.
Carefully wash any contaminated objects or clothing alone in hot soapy water. Do not let the items touch any other clothing or materials.
An over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl or a steroid cream may help relieve itching.
Before Calling Emergency
Determine the following information:
- The patient's age, weight, and condition
- The name of the plant, if known
- The amount swallowed (if swallowed)
The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Take a sample of the plant with you to the hospital, if possible.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
Unless the reaction is severe, you will probably not need to visit the emergency room. If you are concerned, call your doctor or poison control.
At the doctor's office, you may receive:
- Antihistamine or steroids by mouth or applied to the skin
- Washing of the skin (irrigation)
Life-threatening reactions may occur if the poisonous ingredients are swallowed or are breathed in (which can happen when the plants are burned).
Typical skin rashes usually go away without any long-term problems. A skin infection may develop if the affected areas are not kept clean.
Wear protective clothing whenever possible when travelling through terrain which is known to harbor these plants. Do not touch or eat any plant with which you are not familiar. Wash your hands after working in the garden or walking in the woods.
Poison oak; Poison sumac; Sumac - poisonous; Oak - poisonous; Ivy - poisonous
Shofner JD, Kimball AB. Plant-Induced Dermatitis. In: Auerbach PS, ed. Wilderness Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2011:chap 63.
Smolinske SC, Daubert GP, Spoerke DG. Poisonous plants. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 24.
Update Date 10/21/2013
Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.