Exploring the outdoors is one of the best ways to connect with nature and get some needed exercise. But if you’re not careful, you could accidentally brush up against a plant called poison sumac. Like poison oak and poison ivy, doing so can accidentally result in rashes that can spread across your body, often before you even know you’ve contracted it!
However, you can learn to identify and treat poison sumac using natural remedies and botanicals. With the right foresight and a few all natural salves up your sleeve, you’ll have the tools to deal with poison sumac if you or your kids come home with red rashes all over.
What is Poison Sumac?
Poison sumac is one of the most toxic plants in the country – but it’s only located in a few select areas throughout the contiguous United States. If you live in Florida, the Southeast U.S., and any wooded or wet areas in the northern U.S., you should be careful whenever you explore since you'll likely find this plant blooming throughout the summer and fall seasons.
Like its close cousins poison oak and poison ivy, poison sumac produces an oil called urushiol. If you get this oil on your skin, you'll get an itchy rash and may experience an allergic reaction.
Fortunately, identifying poison sumac is pretty easy, even if it can look like other types of bushes and trees. It’s characterized by:
- Brown or red stems that grow in clusters
- Having around 10 leaves each
- Most leaves growing in pairs opposite one another
- Leaf is green during the spring and summer but may become more brown during the fall
You can use this information to identify poison sumac on your property and avoid it. But if you’re unlucky enough to get some of the sumac’s urushiol on your skin, don’t worry--there are ways you can treat the resulting rash with all-natural remedies.
Is Poison Sumac the Same as Poison Ivy and Oak?
Not quite, even though the plants are so similar in terms of their symptoms that a lot of people use the names interchangeably.
Poison oak isn’t always found in the same areas – in fact, it’s normally located in the western United States. As opposed to poison sumac, poison oak usually grows as a shrub and features large and rounded leaves like those of an oak tree. This is where it gets its name.
Meanwhile, poison ivy is common throughout the U.S. and can look like a vine or ground cover plant. It features leaves that grow in groups of three, and it sometimes has yellow or white flowers attached.
All three plants have that same poisonous oil and should be avoided at all costs. But while poison sumac isn’t the same as these other two plants, the symptoms of coming into contact with it are almost identical. This means that a treatment that works for one is likely to work for all three.
Symptoms of Poison Sumac Rash
As with poison oak and ivy, poison sumac produces an allergic reaction on practically everyone's skin thanks to the urushiol oil its leaves produce as a defensive measure. While this stops the plant from being eaten by herbivores, it can be quite the surprise for a hiker exploring the wilderness or kids playing outside.
Whether the plant is alive or dead, all parts of the plant are poisonous due to the urushiol oil, and should never be touched without appropriate protection.
Symptoms from a rash from a poison sumac plant can include:
- A burning sensation on the skin
- Lots of itchiness, which may easily spread to surrounding skin due to the nature of the oil
- Swelling or redness as your skin becomes irritated due to the allergic reaction
- In some more serious cases, your skin may react more severely and produce watery blisters
The symptoms of poison sumac rash can quickly exacerbate since a lot of people aren’t aware that they have touched any of the oil until it’s too late.
For instance, you might accidentally get some of the oil on your sleeve. If your hand touches your sleeve, then scratches other areas on your body, you could potentially spread poison sumac rash everywhere your hand touched.
The symptoms of poison sumac rash usually appear between 8 and 48 hours after exposure. Unfortunately, the symptoms can also last for weeks if they aren’t treated. Note that the rash isn’t contagious, so you won’t give someone else poison sumac rash so long as you thoroughly wash the affected area and get rid of any residual oil.
How to Avoid Poison Sumac Rash
The best way to avoid poison sumac rash is to minimize the possibility that your skin will come into contact with the oil. To do this, practice the following strategies and techniques:
- When exploring in areas where poison sumac is known to grow, wear long sleeve shirts and jeans. This will make it less likely for the leaves of the plant to touch your skin.
- Upon returning home, immediately wash your clothes and minimize touching the clothes with your bare hands.
- If you find poison sumac on your property, only touch and destroy it with gloves that can easily be washed, like thick rubber gloves.
- Never burn poison sumac. As with poison ivy and poison oak, burning these plants can cause the smoke itself to carry oil particles into your lungs. This could result in particularly severe complications and lead to you developing rashes or allergic reactions internally.
How to Treat Poison Sumac with Natural Remedies
It’s always a good idea to talk to a doctor if you contract a really serious case of poison sumac rash. But if you just get a little oil on your skin, there are tons of botanicals and natural remedies you can rely on to treat the condition.
You should first always thoroughly wash the affected area with soap and water. Be sure to do so without spreading the rash throughout the rest of your body. Because of this, it’s recommended that you avoid taking a shower if the rash is somewhere on your upper body since plain water can accidentally spread some of the oil down to your abdomen, legs, and feet.
After thoroughly washing with warm water and soap, dry the rash.
Next step? Grab your trusty tin of Green Goo’s Poison Ivy Salve. While it’s not named for poison sumac specifically, it can help with the effects of poison sumac rash the same way it can help with poison ivy. That’s because it features an effective blend of natural ingredients like calendula, plantain, chickweed, sage leaf, St. John’s Wort, and much more, all specifically chosen to help soothe and protect your skin.
All of these ingredients blend together and can help relieve the itchiness and pain that results from exposure to urushiol.
Feel free to apply the salve often as long as your skin is thoroughly cleaned and dried. Use as much as necessary to alleviate itchiness, pain, and oozing resulting from poison sumac. You can also use this salve for other skin conditions, too!
There are also other home remedies for poison sumac itching that use natural ingredients or botanicals. For instance, you can apply a little rubbing alcohol to the rash to dry out your skin and cause the skin to flake away a little more quickly. Be sure not to overdo this since you may accidentally overly dry your skin and cause damage.
Alternatively, try the following mixture:
- Apple cider vinegar
- Witch hazel
- Baking soda
Mixing these together will allow you to make your own anti-poison sumac topical treatment. This should neutralize most of the irritation without being too harsh on your skin. Though, we’ll be frank with you--our salve will do a lot better job because we’ve included a lot more skin-soothing and skin-supporting ingredients specifically intended to give you relief.
Lastly, you can mix one or two cups of colloidal oatmeal in a warm bath if the rash has spread across your body. The oatmeal helps soothe and nourish irritated skin so it can heal properly.
All in all, taking care of a poison sumac reaction is very similar to taking care of poison ivy and poison oak irritation. Most of the same strategies and techniques for avoiding the plant also apply to its itchy cousins. Similarly, you can use the same kinds of topical and botanical treatments like our Poison Ivy Salve to take care of any of these three rash-producers.
However, we again stress that you shouldn't hesitate to contact a doctor if your rashes become particularly severe or if you inhale smoke from burning poison sumac by accident.
Let us know if you have any other questions!