How to Treat Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Sumac

A major part of prepping is making sure that you are ready for wilderness survival. Dangers can vary depending on the environment in which you live. Plants are an often overlooked danger that a true survivalist will always stay vigilantly aware of.

If you have ever taken a stroll through the woods, chances are you’ve been introduced to at least one member of the poisonous plant trifecta: poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. These plants contain an oil called urushiol. This oil can result in an itchy, blistered rash on many people if it comes in contact with their skin. Though their side-effects are similar, differences in geography and appearance are important things to learn about and stay aware of. Learn more about each of these dangerous plants.

diagram of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac

Poison Oak

Poison oak got its name from its leaves, which have a similar appearance to an oak tree’s leaves. These leaves are often found in groups of three, but these groupings can range from 3 to 7 leaves. The plant grows as a vine or small shrub and is found mostly in the western United States, but can also be found in the eastern United States and, in rare cases, in the Midwest as well.

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac is identified by it’s 7 to 13 leaves growing along the stems of a shrub or small tree. The leaves have smooth edges and pointed tips or ends. It is found in the wooded, swampy areas of the southeastern United States as well as in wet, wooded regions of the northern states.

Poison Ivy

Like it’s relative, poison oak, poison ivy’s leaves are often grouped in threes, with some occurrences of greater numbers. This consistency between poison oak and poison ivy yielded the popular survivalist turn of phrase, “Leaves of three, leave it be.” In the eastern United States, poison ivy is found as a vine crawling up trees or spreading through fields and grass. In the northern states, Canada, and around the Great Lakes, this plant occurs more frequently as a shrub.

Be aware that the appearances of theses plants may vary at different times of the year. A reddish hue can be seen in vary degrees on all of them, but that redness can become more pronounced on poison oak in the fall.

Side effects

skin rash from poison ivy

Obviously the best option is to avoid contact with the plants, but as any prepper knows, you need to be prepared for the worst. Reactions to contact with the poisonous oil urushiol can vary depending on your body’s sensitivity. Typically, a rash will start to form between 12 and 72 hours after contact. The rash will feel itchy and appear inflamed and blistered.

Fortunately, the rash is not contagious and doesn’t spread. At first, the rash may appear to be spreading or growing, but that is just certain contacted areas reacting faster than others. In more severe cases, swelling may occur. Some more dangerous cases cause the face or the eyes to swell shut. In these cases, you should go to see a doctor right away. Certain extreme cases can also result in trouble breathing or swallowing. If this happens, go immediately to the emergency room.


Cleaning with soap and water is the first step to treating a reaction to these plants. Urushiol can remain potent and affect more regions of your body if it is not removed. Once you’ve cleaned the area, repeated soaking can provide a great deal of relief, especially when paired oatmeal based products or even a homemade ground oatmeal scrub.

Cortisone and calamine lotions and creams can be another source of great relief from the itchiness. Natural or home remedies providing relief include aloe vera, a 3-to-1 baking soda and water paste, and cucumber slices or a ground cucumber paste. Over the counter medicines such as Benadryl or Claritin provide great relief from itching and inflammation.

Extreme cases will require a visit to the emergency room for adequate treatment. If the rash covers most of your body, affects your breathing, begins swelling (especially around your eyes),  or affects your face or genitals, seek medical attention immediately.

As with any preparedness situation, the best route is to avoid the problem at all costs. However, we hope that if you are ever affected by poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac, you will be prepared for how to identify the problem and treat it accordingly.

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