The summer is a great time to investigate nature, whether you choose to pursue a formal study, simply revel in the wonders of your backyard garden, or take to the local hiking trails! Plants will have all their leaves and many will have their flowers in bloom or even fruits, making identification much easier.
But before you head into those deep woods on a nature walk, or even dive into the jungle of your backyard (that’s only a partial exaggeration—you haven’t seen my lilac bushes), teach your kids about poisonous plants to avoid so you don’t come home with any nasty surprises.
New poison ivy and oak plants can crop up overnight! Birds love the berries, so they gobble them up, but they don’t digest the seeds. By the time the seeds make it all the way through a bird’s digestive track, it could be miles away from the original plant. That path that you’ve been down a hundred times before could now have poison ivy vines creeping alongside.
I had a sudden rash last week that looked suspiciously like a poison ivy rash. It turns out that when I did a quick bit of gardening (translation: trying to annihilate the invasive mint that was growing into the path. The previous owners apparently liked mint. Alot.), I apparently grabbed hold of a poison ivy plant that was hiding there. Since I didn’t know it until a couple of days later, I didn’t take the usual precautions I would normally take to remove the plant’s oils.
Over the next several days, I had rashes appearing on various parts of my body caused by my body having an allergic reaction to the urushiol oil found in poison ivy. The same oil is also found in poison oak and poison sumac. About 85% to 90% of people in the US are allergic to urushoil to varying degrees. Some will get a light rash and others can have a severe reaction.
Upon contact, the oil starts absorbing into your skin almost immediately. If you are able to wash within 10 minutes or so, you stand a chance of avoiding a reaction or at least lessening it. The first rash might appear in a day or two. Subsequent rashes can appear over several days. Even though it has been over a week since my first exposure, I am still occasionally finding a tiny cluster rash here and there (that top pic is the most recent), even though I’ve washed any items in my house that may have been contaminated.
The difference in timing and severity of each rash has to do with:
- the concentration of oil
- sensitivity of your skin in that area
- whether or not you’ve had a reaction before (a previous reaction makes you more sensitive)
Poison ivy grows in nearly every state in the United States, except California, Hawaii, and Alaska. Poison oak is found in the southeast and on west coast (yes, California, you need to watch out, too). And poison sumac is found in boggy areas in the south and along the Mississippi. See of map of their distribution here.
Judging from my own experience, I really need to educate my kids on how to avoid plants that could harm them when we are out on our nature walks.
3 ways to avoid poisonous rashes on your nature study:
1. Leaves of three? Leave it be!
Learn to identify poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, or at least the plants that are likely to be found in your area. There are different varieties! Leaf color, flower color, and berry color can vary a good bit. Their leaves change color in different seasons. Both the ivy and oak can be either bushes or even thick hairy vines.
But in the summer, you will be able to see their leaves—both poison ivy and poison oak have clusters of 3 leaflets. Poison sumac has several leaflets per stem. The University of Florida Extension office has a helpful 6 page pdf for identifying poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac here.
Talk to your kids about avoiding plants with clusters of 3 leaves. Here’s a coloring page so they can become familiar with what poison ivy looks like.
If your children are very young, you may want to have them ask you before touching any plants they encounter, just to be on the safe side.
2. Keep your hands away from your face.
Avoid touching your face or other parts of your body with your hands if you’ve been touching anything outside and ask your kids to do the same. The rash from poison ivy, oak, or sumac is not contagious, but the urushiol oil that causes it can be transferred from skin to skin, from clothing to skin, from tools to skin, etc. It’s a good idea to avoid, say…rubbing your eyes…in case you’ve unknowingly come in contact.
3. Wash up thoroughly!
When you get home, have everyone very carefully wash their hands with a de-greasing soap (like dishwashing liquid), including under their nails. If you’ve been exploring the woods, you’ll want to remove and wash your clothes and possibly your shoes. Trace amounts of urushoil can get on your skin from your clothes and cause rashes in all kinds of places.
Ohio State University Extension has a pdf aimed at horticulturalists on avoiding these poisonous plants and the proper treatment to use if you should accidentally encounter one here.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital has an article on what to do if you suspect your child has been exposed to one of these plants. It’s downloadable as a pdf and includes line drawings of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac your kids can color.
Note: I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on this blog. The information I’ve included in this post came from various resources on the web, including those linked within. If you happen to go on a random Google search of poison ivy cures or images, it seems everybody wants to post their scary looking rash—make sure your 5-year-old isn’t looking over your shoulder.
Please take any advice you find on home cures with a grain of salt—everybody is different and some that I’ve seen may actually hinder you healing by causing additional irritation. If you or your child has a serious rash, please consult your doctor.