How to Identify Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac leaves Plants
Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac leaves Plants
Camping with Kids and Poisonous Plants

They look innocent, but Poison Oak, Ivy, and Sumac can be more than just an irritating rash – they can be medically dangerous, and make kids never want to go camping again.

There are a few products that can treat a rash in the early stages, but unfortunately medical attention, not “home cures,” is the only treatment remedy for severe allergic reactions. Which makes prevention the best way to keep the kids safe.

Make sure your camping kids know what these poisonous plants look like, and to stay away from them. Start by teaching them the old Boy Scout warning:

Leaves of three – Leave it be!

Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac leaves Plants
Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Leaves and Plants

Basic Information

  • All three plants, (Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, and Poison Sumac), are commonly found in most regions of the United States, in ALL seasons.
  • They are not restricted to wooded areas. They can be found anywhere there is brush or under-growth. (even your backyard)
  • The danger is in the oils that are on and in their leaves and stems.
  • The symptoms of exposure can appear as quickly as a few hours, or one to three days after contact.

How to identify Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

Your most important job when camping with kids is to make sure the kids know what these plants look like, how bad the rashes can be, and to mark off any areas around your campsite where you find them.

*Click to see enlarged pictures
Poison Oak pictures spring summer fall winter
Poison Oak
Poison Ivy Pictures Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter
Poison Ivy

Poison Oak, Ivy, and Camping:

Poison Oak and Ivy are primarily ground spreading and climbing plants. Although you can find large bushes of these plants, (like the image above), you are most likely to encounter them as spreading ground growth, (sometimes bushing to knee-high), at the edges of primitive camp sites, and along walking and hiking trails.

The second most common encounter is around tree trunks. Both plants are climbing vines that will encircle the trunks. This type of growth is the most easily identified – and avoided, but still just as dangerous as ground and bush growth.

The images below are the most typical Poison Ivy/Oak camping encounters:

Click to see enlarged pictures

Poison Sumac

Poison Sumac is most frequently seen as bushes and tall undergrowth. Unlike Poison Ivy and Oak, it is seldom seen as a climbing vine on trees. And, importantly, it does not fit the “leaves of Three” rule. It’s leaves grow symmetrically on each side of the stem – with one “tip” leaf pointing straight out.

*Click to see enlarged pictures
Because it grows as knee to waist-high bushy growth, the most common camping encounter is along hiking trails where it is easy to brush against it before you recognize what it is. And for younger campers, it is a tempting target to pluck it’s leaves as they tramp along the trail. Which gets the oils on their hands – and anywhere else they rub or scratch – bad news.
It is very important to help young campers be aware of Poison Sumac. The images below show the typical Poison Sumac growth found along trails and campsite boundaries.

Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac rashes

Reactions to contact with these plants can range from itchy irritating redness and minor rashes to severe blistering reactions with liquid filled blisters as big as golf balls.

Remembering that it is the oils of the plants that cause these rashes, it is very important, (and very hard to do), that you do not scratch or rub affected areas. That will only spread the oils and push them deeper into the skin pores.

Some people seem to be very tolerant to contact, while others are extremely sensitive, but in any case, the severity of the effects is directly related to the amount of contact, ie. how much of the plant oils get on the skin.

In severe blistering cases, there is a serious danger of infection from popped or leaky blisters, and intermediate medical care is recommended.

Important Tip: It is not just contact with the plant that can cause the rash, it is contact with the oils from the plant.

Which means you can also get a rash from touching anything else that has come into contact with the plants, like; footwear, clothing, pets, and even camp gear that has been in contact with the plants. (like the shovel handle that flopped down on the undergrowth)

You can even get very serious poisonous exposure from the smoke of burning wood that has the vines or stems of these plants on them.

The Three Most Important Things You Can Do:

  1. Walk your camping area and look for these plants before your young camping kids do.
    • If you find any of these plants, do not try to pull them up, cut them down, or remove them. Show the kids what you found and mark the area so they know to stay away.
    • You can mark the spot with a sign on a stake or rope it off with a flagged line.
  2. Educate your young campers about these poisonous plants.
    • Show them what these plants look like
    • Tell them what will happen if they touch them
  3. As much as the weather will allow – have the kids wear clothing that reduces the amount of exposed skin. Like; long pants and long sleeve shirts.

What to do if a camper is exposed:
DO NOT SCRUB or try to wipe the affected area!

  • Carefully remove any clothing that may have contacted the plants and put them in a separate bag. Remember, you can get the oil on you from the clothes too.
  • Rinse the area with a lot of COOL water. A Lot!
    • DO NOT use hot water, it will open the skin pores and let the oil penetrate deeper.
    • DO NOT use a cloth to try to scrub off the oil, you will only spread the exposed area and rub the oil deeper into the skin.

Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac Treatment, Cures, and Remedies:

Note: A lot of people will offer, (and sometimes swear by), home remedies – like oatmeal baths, or other “sure-fire” cures, but the truth is that although some may work for minor red rash cases – most won’t work for more severe blistering rashes.

The most effective treatment when the rash is first spotted is to try to remove the plant oils from the skin. Flushing with cool water, or using the mentioned oil-dissolving skin lotions,, or one of the products below, and making sure the affected clothing and gear are removed are the first steps.

After that it’s just a matter of trying to treat the itching:

  • The best remedy is prescription stuff you can get from a doctor. (Prednizone, – a steroid, seems to be the most affective)
    • To relieve itching, try calamine lotion, an over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream, or antihistamine.
    • Some folks say Aloe Vera Gel helps, (it dries the skin), but this seems to be relative to the person using it.
    • Cold compresses also help reduce blistering and itching
  • Once a severe reaction has set in, there is not much you can do for relief – except seek medical attention. But, if you catch the exposure reaction when the redness first appears, and before any blistering, then skin scrubs like the Tecnu products below, or other oil-dissolving skin products, can help reduce the reaction to just a little itchy redness.

Some experienced outdoor campers and hikers have recommended these products:

Prevention is the best cure. Blockers like this help stop the poison oils from being absorbed by the skin. A great idea for the very young or very sensitive camping kids.


For emergencies, Tecnu is one of the most respected and effective product lines that outdoor campers and hikers rely on. Their scrubs and cleaners are proven to dissolve and remove the plant oils, and they also include pain and itch relief ingredients.

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