Pick Your Poison

By Sharon Jones, Girls Who Hike West Virginia Ambassador

Having lived in the Arizona desert for 30 plus years, it was easy for me to not think about things like poison ivy, poison oak or even poison sumac. Now that I live in West Virginia I find myself needing to know what plants I may encounter while on the trails, or even in my own backyard, that could cause me to get a nasty rash. 

I remember the saying “leaves of three, let them be.” I was completely unaware that some of these poisonous rash causing plants have leaves of five, or even seven. Apparently poison sumac has clusters of five to thirteen. I was even more surprised to learn that there are different types of poison oak and poison ivy. For example, the Atlantic poison oak plant does have leaves of three, and grows left than right. The same is true for eastern poison ivy. Pacific poison oak, commonly found in California, usually has leaves of three, but may have more. 


These poison plants aren’t always green either. The leaves change colors depending on the time of the year. Poison sumac leaves can turn from pale yellow to a bright orange to a deep red. Poison ivy can have orange to reddish color leaves.


The best way to avoid getting rashes from these plants is to avoid contact with them. Sometimes, however, that cannot be helped. If you do come in contact with and get a rash from these plants there are a variety of treatments available. These treatments range from applying rubbing alcohol directly to the affected area to seeking medical treatment. The use of rubbing alcohol is supposed to be most effective if done immediately following the exposure to the poisonous plant(s). You should also wash the exposed area using cold water. You can apply calamine lotion or another lotion that contains hydrocortisone. There are a variety of over the counter medications available that provide relief from the rash and itching caused by exposure to poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac.  

Be sure you wash whatever clothing and shoes you were wearing at the time of contact with these plants as well. The oil from these plants that causes the rashes and itchiness can last quite a while (months to years), and cause you to get yet another rash. 

It appears that our furry friends (dogs and cats) are not susceptible to the allergic effects of poison oak, ivy or sumac. They can transmit the oil from these plants to us though. If you think your pet ran through some poison ivy be sure to give them an bath while using personal protective equipment like rubber gloves to avoid getting the rash from them.

Here is a link to a website with information on how to treat the rash obtained from poison ivy and poison oak.

Sharon is the Ambassador for our West Virginia chapter. You can join her local meetups and discussions through GWHWV by clicking here.