Don’t Let Poisonous Plants Stall Your Summer Festivities!

by Janel DuRoss

Summer is here, and so much fun is to be had: longer days, beach time, fresh produce, running, biking, playing frisbee, hiking, outdoor yoga, picnicking, playing with your kids, blowing bubbles, and endless summer activities.

And then, yikes!

You come in contact with the unassuming, yet wildly intense plant(s) Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac. The leaves release a clear liquid compound called Urushiol (you-ROO-shee-all), which interestingly is not a defense mechanism; it’s just how the plant retains water. The end result for you is a rash on your skin that starts to itch and blister. This type of rash doesn’t usually appear for 12 to 72 hours after contact with the plant(s). Use this information to save you from fierce itching, keep the rash from spreading and preserve your wallet!

When to seek medical care

  • if the rash covers major body parts
  • the blisters are large in size
  • if you have difficulty sleeping

Visit the emergency room for serious reactions

  • eye swell shut, swollen face or genitals
  • difficulty breathing or swallowing

Treatment (immediate): You must take consistent, vigilant daily action to treat the rash so it does not spread to other body parts or other people

Tecnu cleanser is great for washing away the Urushiol oil. Follow instructions on packaging. And pure tea tree oil works really well to help dry out the rash from the Urushiol oil. Apply tea tree oil with a sterile cotton ball a few times a day.

Remember this rash easily spreads, so always keep the rash area covered with sterile cotton gauze, be careful using medical tape too close to the rash as it will inspire the rash to develop where the tape is. Unfortunately, I learned this from personal experience, so take note. If the Urushiol oil comes in any contact with your clothes, sheets, towels, even pets, the oil doesn’t evaporate, it remains for months, even years. Make sure to wash (with Tecnu) everything you come in contact with!

This rash can be a very unpleasant and a time-demanding experience so just practice patience. To prevent stressing out, allow yourself adequate time in your day to take of it.


  • protect your skin
  • avoid these poisonous plants

What do they look like

Poison_IvyPoison Ivy

  • each leaf has 3 small leaflets
  • in the East, Midwest and South of US it grows as a vine
  • can sometimes it looks like a shrub

Poison_OakPoison Oak

  • same features as Poison Ivy
  • occasionally it may have yellow-white berries

Poison_SumacPoison Sumac

  • each leaf has a row of paired leaflets, plus another leaflet at the end
  • grows as a shrub or small tree
  • frequently there are black splotches on the leaves, when exposed to the air they turn brownish black
  • like Poison Oak, it may have yellow-white berries

Fyi, if these plants are in your backyard, do not burn any of them because the plant will release Urushiol oil into the air, and the airborne fragments end up on your skin, which can then lead to allergic reaction, developing a rash.

This savvy Haiku may help you remember:

Leaves of three, let it be.
Longer middle stem, stay away from them.
Hairy vine, no friend of mine.
Side leaflets like mittens, will itch like the dickens.
Berries white, run in fright.
Red leaflets in the spring it’s a dangerous thing.

Now that you are armed with this knowledge, you can plan efficiently to enjoy an awesome summer!

Janel teaches yoga, meditation, thai bodywork and related movement workshops in NJ and NYC. To learn more about her, visit her website.

(Photo by Beatrice Murch)