What to Know About Plant-Related Rashes

It’s summer, which means it’s a great time to be outside hiking, running and biking. It’s also a great time for plants to grow. While we love seeing green trees and beautiful flowers come out, there are also some plants we wish didn’t grow at all. I’m talking about those plants that can cause us to have rashes. Those are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.
Poison ivy, oak and sumac all release an oil called urushiol when the leaf or other plant parts are damaged or burned. When this oil releases and gets on the skin, an allergic reaction, referred to as contact dermatitis, can occur. Most people experience an itchy, red rash with bumps or blisters. There can also be swelling and the blisters may contain fluid. It’s important to remember that the blister fluids are not contagious.
Anyone working outside or just spending time outdoors is at risk of exposure. And burning these plants produces smoke that can cause lung irritation when inhaled. Be wary of these any time you are outside.
“Leaves of three, let it be,” right? While that old saying is good for identifying poison ivy and oak, poison sumac usually has clusters of 7 to 13 leaves. And even poison ivy and poison oak can have more than three leaves depending on the species and the environment. It is important to know what the differences look like so you can avoid them. Do your research before venturing outdoors.
Let’s talk about some of the ways you can avoid getting this oil on your skin. Wear long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves if possible. You should also wash clothing exposed to these plants separately in hot water and detergent.
Clean your tools with rubbing alcohol or soap and water while wearing disposable gloves. These tools can transfer the urushiol. Also, do not burn plants or brush piles that could possibly have poison ivy, oak or sumac in them. Lastly, barrier skin creams, like lotions containing bentoquatam, may help protect you.
But what if you are exposed to one of these poisonous plants? Immediately rinse skin with rubbing alcohol, poison plant wash, detergent or soap that gets off grease such as dish soap. Use a lot of water when rinsing and rinse frequently so the wash solutions do not dry on the skin and further spread the urushiol.
You should also make sure you scrub under your nails with a brush as the oil can hide under there. To reduce itching and blistering, apply wet compresses, calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream to the skin. Oatmeal baths may also relieve itching. You can also take an antihistamine, but note that drowsiness may occur.
In severe cases, or if the rash is on the face or genitals, you should seek medical attention. If you are having a severe allergic reaction, such as swelling or difficulty breathing or have had a severe reaction in the past, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
Are you in need of a primary care physician to discuss plant-related rashes? Call 317-880-8687 or visit www.eskenazihealth.edu/doctors to find one today.

Nydia Nunez-Estrada, M.D.
Family Medicine
Eskenazi Health Urgent Care East