Poison oak is a shrub with its stems typically growing upright. You can quickly develop an itchy rash from coming in contact with poison oak due to the urushiol oil in the plant. This rash is very similar to a poison ivy rash.
Urushiol causes an itchy and blistering rash called dermatitis, typically beginning 24–72 hours after contact with the plant. While a rash is a typical complication of coming in contact with poison oak, you can sometimes develop a more severe reaction, such as trouble breathing, swallowing, and swelling.
If you develop a severe poison oak reaction, you must seek medical care for treatment.
How Can You Identify Poison Oak in Your Yard?
In North America, poison oak is a low-growing shrub, with its stems typically growing upright. The leaves are fuzzy with rounded or pointed tips. Poison oak leaflets occur in threes and have toothed edges.
Poison Oak Leaves
Some poison oak leaves contain white or pale yellow berries and clusters of green and yellow flowers. While it typically has a bunch of three leaves at a time, it can have up to seven. There are two types of poison oak, Western and Eastern poison oak.
The Western poison oak has lobed leaflets, while the Eastern poison oak appears more glossy, like poison ivy. Poison ivy also comes in two types, Eastern and Western, and each has leaves that grow in groups of three. Western poison oak, or pacific poison oak, may appear vine-like.
Poison ivy appears glossy and smooth and turns bright red and yellow in the fall. The middle leaflet is much longer than the two side leaflets in a poison ivy cluster. Some other plants that may be mistaken for poison oak include Virginia creeper, skunkbush sumac, fragrant sumac, and boxelder.
Virginia creeper resembles poison oak but generally contains five leaflets with pointed edges. It may be mistaken for poison oak because it turns red in the fall and can cause a mild rash similar to one from poison oak.
Skunkbush sumac also looks like poison oak. The main distinguishable difference is that the berries are not white or yellow like poison oak but instead are red and orange. Its leaves are also rounded and grow in groups of three.
The fragrant sumac plant grows its leaves in bunches of threes, and the leaves appear blue-green. You can distinguish an aromatic poison sumac plant from poison oak because it produces red and hairy fruits, while poison oak has white and yellow berries.
Lastly, boxelder can be mistaken for poison oak. It consists of three to five toothed leaflets. The plant is green during the summer and doesn’t change color much in the fall. You can identify boxelder because the leaves are opposite, while poison oak leaves are alternating.
Poison Oak Stems and Berries
You may have heard the expression, “Leaves of three, let it be,” which helps identify poisonous plants like poison oak. However, it’s not always that simple.
This plant is mainly located in coastal states and is less common in the central region of the United States. If you live in the Central U.S., don’t assume you’re safe because it can form in some isolated places along rivers.
A poison oak plant has small, hanging clusters of greenish-yellow flowers in the spring, which eventually turn to berries at the end of summer. The berries stay on the plant from the beginning of winter, with only the stems remaining when spring arrives. Berries from poison oak are not edible berries like wild blackberries and raspberries.
To identify a poison oak stem, you should look for no thorns and a fuzzy and reddish appearance. You can also develop an allergic reaction from touching or consuming a poison oak berry or stem like you do from touching its leaves.
You can even develop a rash, diarrhea, or vomiting if you ingest a poison oak berry or stem. If you ingest multiple berries or stems, the effects can be fatal if untreated. Some severe allergic reactions from consuming berries from poison oak include stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, blurred vision, and convulsions.
How Should You Treat Poison Oak Rash?
First, remove all your clothing that has come in contact with the poison oak plant and wash your skin using lukewarm and soapy water.
Remember that everything touching you and that you touch can transfer the rash. Your clothes, hands, legs, and even feet can contain plant oil that will spread the rash. Once you come inside, remove all your clothes, and put them directly into the washing machine by themselves.
Here are some things you can do to treat your poison oak rash once you’ve removed your clothing:
Wet Compresses and Baths
Applying a wet and cool compress to your skin after developing a mild rash can help relieve itching and pain. You can use a cool, damp washcloth to help provide temporary relief, as it can decrease inflammation and almost numb the rash.
Another way to help relieve your poison oak rash is to bathe in lukewarm water. Taking a bath can reduce itching and prevent infection. You can also bathe in cool water if you feel it will relieve your pain. For added relief, consider adding Epsom salt to your bath.
Epsom salt contains magnesium, which effectively decreases skin inflammation and hydrates damaged or dry skin. Epsom salt can be very helpful in drying out an oozing skin rash. You can purchase Epsom salt at your local pharmacy or supermarket.
Lastly, you can take a colloidal oatmeal bath. Add colloidal oatmeal to your bath to help relieve pain and itching. Blend two cups of uncooked oatmeal into a powder in your bath, and soak for at least 20 minutes.
Hydrocortisone Cream and Calamine Lotion
Hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion can help reduce swelling and blisters from a poison oak rash. Some other over-the-counter lotions and creams that can help relieve pain and itchiness from the rash include skin protectants like zinc carbonate, zinc acetate, and zinc oxide.
To safely apply hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion to the affected area, put the substance on a cotton ball. Use the cotton ball to apply the lotion or cream to your skin and gently rub it in. Be sure to allow the cream to dry completely before putting clothing over it.
Another way to relieve pain and itchiness from a poison oak rash is to use baking soda. If you mix three parts baking soda with one part cold water, it creates a paste. Apply that paste to your skin gently. Once it dries, you can slowly and gently rub it off.
Antihistamines and Pain Relievers
Antihistamines and pain relievers like Benadryl and Tylenol can help relieve our skin. A pain reliever will aid in diminishing any pain from the allergic reaction. While the antihistamines will not entirely relieve itchy skin, they will help you take your mind off the itching because they make you tired.
There are other over-the-counter antihistamines that can provide relief without making you drowsy, such as Claritin or Alavert. Another over-the-counter medication for pain relief is ibuprofen, which helps relieve inflammation.
Before using any of these medications, you should check with your doctor first to ensure they’re the best options.
When Should You See a Doctor for Poison Oak Rash?
There is a point where it’s recommended to see a doctor after coming in contact with poison oak. There are risks of infection, allergic reaction, and systemic toxicity from poison oak exposure.
The most common complication from a severe poison oak rash includes developing a bacterial infection at the site of the poison oak rash, which is caused by repeated scratching and itching. If you develop a bacterial infection, your doctor must prescribe you an antibiotic and possibly a steroid to help treat it.
The rash and bacterial infection can spread to other parts of the body without the antibiotic. If you experience trouble breathing or swallowing, you must immediately seek medical attention, as it’s an emergency. Poison oak can cause lung irritation if it’s a severe allergic reaction.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if you experience the following symptoms, it’s essential to go to the nearest emergency room or seek immediate healthcare.
- Difficulty breathing or swallowing
- A rash on most of your body
- Facial swelling, especially if the swelling causes your eyes to close
- A rash around your mouth, eyes, or genitals
- A fever
- Itching that you cannot relieve on your own
While sometimes coming into contact with a poison oak plant is unavoidable, it’s essential to be aware of your surroundings and know how to identify a poison oak plant.
Suppose you develop a rash from the plant. In that case, there are various things you can do to relieve pain and itchiness, like applying hydrocortisone cream, applying a cool and wet compress, taking a bath, or taking over-the-counter medications. But if the allergic reaction is severe and you have difficulty swallowing, breathing, or develop a fever, you must seek emergency medical care for treatment.
When working around poisonous plants in your yard or trying to remove poison oak or poison ivy, it’s best to wear gloves, long pants, and long sleeves to prevent the plants from touching your skin. If you live in a wooded area, it’s best to childproof your yard from these poisonous plants to prevent anyone from experiencing the painful and itchy rash that can develop.
While avoiding poison oak is important, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the great outdoors whenever you can. Just be aware of your surroundings and know what dangerous plants look like.