How to Treat and Prevent Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all have a chemical irritant called urushiol that's secreted from the leaves or stalks. Most of us are allergic and react to urushiol with itching and a rash.



Poison ivy photo

raksybH / Getty Images

When it comes to poison ivy or poison oak, prevention is really the best medicine. However, my gut tells me you probably didn't look this up to see how to avoid poison ivy as much as how to treat it, so let's start there.


Symptoms and Treatment

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

poison ivy rash

Belinda Hankins Miller

The good news is: the rash and itching will go away without any treatment. The bad news is: it will probably take a couple of weeks for it to go away. Treatment of poison ivy, oak, and sumac are all about comfort. You want to relieve the itching and inflammation.

  • Call 911 if you have any trouble breathing. This is especially true if you inhale smoke from burning poison ivy.
  • Call the doctor if the rash is on or around your eyes, covers a large part of your body, or seems to be infected (fever, swelling or oozing).

Here are tips to relieve the itching and rash. Some of these work better than others, so it's really a personal choice, and maybe a little trial and error:

  • Cold compresses on the rash for 15-20 minutes, several times per day. Don't put ice directly on the skin or leave cold packs on for too long: you can get frostbite from a cold pack if you're not careful.
  • Use calamine lotion, topical antihistamine or hydrocortisone cream to reduce itching.
  • Taking oral antihistamines such as Benedryl (diphenhydramine) should help reduce itching.

Here are some home remedies and alternative medicine treatments that might help with the itching:

  • Baking soda and colloidal oatmeal are protectants that relieve minor skin irritation and itching.
  • Aloe vera applied directly to the rash. If you have a plant, cut it open and rub the slippery part right on the skin. You can also try topical products with aloe included.
  • Take a cool bath.

Prevention is the best treatment for poison ivy. Knowledge is power. The way to prevent poison ivy, oak or sumac is to know what you're looking for and how to avoid it.


Avoiding Exposure

Clockwise from top left: poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.

Sam Fraser-Smith, Ed Bierman, Rusty Clark

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac all produce the toxin urushiol. More than half the population is allergic to this stuff, which will cause itching and a blistering rash if it gets on the skin.

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

Poison oak is found on the West Coast and in the southeastern U.S. Poison ivy is found pretty much everywhere except Hawaii, Alaska, and parts of the west coast. Both of these come in a few different varieties and can grow as shrubs or vines. They typically like sunshine.​

There is an old rhyme that helps identify these pesky plants: "Leaves of three, let it be!"

Look for the combination of three leaves shown in these pictures. Poison oak will sometimes have a reddish coloration, either on the edges of the leaf or throughout the whole thing. They might have little yellow or white berries.

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac grows in the swamps and wetlands of the northeastern, midwestern, and southeastern United States. and doesn't follow the "leaves of three" rule that helps identify poison ivy and poison oak. Each leaf contains clusters of 7-13 leaflets. Poison Sumac's color varies based on the season - it will be orange in the spring, green in the summer, and yellow or red in the fall. It may have yellow-greenish flowers and whitish-green fruits that hang in loose clusters. 

Poison sumac grows as a shrub or a small tree. This variety produces the most urushiol in all parts of the plant, not just the leaves. Harmless sumacs contain clusters of red berries.

Cover Up

Besides avoiding it completely (learn to recognize the version of poison ivy, oak or sumac that grows where you live), the best prevention is to cover your skin. It doesn't take much of the urushiol to cause itching and blisters; in fact, you only need to brush up against the plant to get a reaction.

By covering your skin, you lessen the risk of exposure. However, you must wash clothing after contact with the plant, or you run the risk of secondary exposure to the oil. It also doesn't take much urushiol to cause irritation, and it can be spread from clothing to skin (even clothing to furniture to the skin).

Dangerous Dogs

Pets don't usually get a reaction to urushiol because their fur protects the skin from contact. Your dog can transfer the oil onto you, however, so Fido will need a bath if he's been rummaging around in the poison ivy bush. After you bathe the dog, bathe yourself.

One more thing: you can't catch a poison ivy reaction. Once the oil is gone, the threat is gone. The reaction is an allergy to the oil. The irritation, itching, and rash are not contagious. Some folks say you have about 30 minutes to wash up after an exposure to avoid the reaction.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Poisonous plants, Updated June 1, 2018.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac: how to treat the rash.

  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Outsmarting poison ivy and other poisonous plants. Updated August 6, 2016.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Poison ivy, oak, & sumac. Updated December 20, 2018.

  5. Pet Poison Helpline. Poison ivy.

  6. Harvard Health Publishing. Is poison ivy contagious? Updated July 2018.