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If you've been camping or anywhere near the woods, you've probably been warned about poison ivy, as well as similar plants like poison oak and poison sumac. The "poison" in these names is a bit misleading, as they don't poison, but cause a form of allergic contact dermatitis. This results in the itchy, painful rashes we associate with these plants.
The substance that causes a reaction from exposure to all three of these plants is a toxic oil called urushiol, found in their sap. Around 85 percent of people develop a rash after coming into contact with urishiol. Contrary to belief, the rash it causes can't be spread person-to-person, but you can get it from the oil if it's stuck to clothes, pets, gardening tools, or anything else that's come into contact with these plants.
Many people don't get a rash the first time they come into contact with urishiol, as sensitization occurs. The severity of the rash depends on person and can change over time. Symptoms may include:
These symptoms typically last 1 to 3 weeks, and don't spread unless the urishiol comes into contact with other parts of your body. The rashes don't usually develop until 12 to 72 hours after contact, and can develop at different rates. Touching these rashes or their drainage won't cause them to spread.
You may have heard the old phrase "leaves of three, let it be," which often accurately describes poison ivy's clusters of three leaves. But the three major poison plants are not all the same:
The best way to prevent rashes from these "poison" plants is to avoid them altogether! How can you do that? Here are some tips:
The first step to alleviating the effect of urushiol rashes is to act quickly. If you think you've come into contact with one of these plants, you should immediately:
Remove clothes and wash them.
Wash all exposed areas on your skin with cool water and soap.
Rinse away any urushiol on your skin with running water.
You may get a rash despite your best efforts! Treatment options are largely about reducing the effects of the rashes and alleviating pain and itchiness. Here are some treatment options:
Don't neglect calling a doctor if the rashes become too uncomfortable. These may be signs of infection, and will require antibiotics. Watch for these signs: