AFMC Command News

Nature’s hazards: Poisonous plants

  • Published
  • Air Force Materiel Command Health and Wellness Team
State parks and woodlands are favorite places for many people who enjoy outdoor activities. Unfortunately, contact with poisonous plants can make these outings a miserable experience.

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac all contain the plant oil urushiol, which can cause severe skin rash when any part of the leaves, stem or root is touched. Allergic reaction can occur directly by touching the plant, or indirectly by coming into contact with the oil on animals, tools, clothes or other items. Even the smoke from the burning of these poisonous plants contains oil particles that can be inhaled and cause lung irritation.

Interaction with these plants is preventable. This article is designed to help individuals learn how to identify poisonous plants in order to avoid exposure.

Plant Identification
Poison Ivy – The old saying “Leaves of three, let it be” is a reminder of the consistent leaf characteristic of this plant. Leaflets can be 2-6 inches long and may be toothed or have smooth edges. Leaves emerge with a shiny reddish tinge in the spring and turn a dull green as they age, eventually turning shades of red, yellow or orange in the fall before dropping off the plant.

There are different types of poison ivy found throughout the Unites States. Eastern poison ivy is typically a hairy, ropelike vine with three shiny green (or red in the fall) leaves budding from one small stem. Eastern poison ivy is the one of the most common poisonous plant species in the United States, and is found throughout the Midwest to the east coast. It can grow as a shrub or as a vine that climbs high on trees, walls and fences or trails along the ground. Western poison ivy is typically a low shrub with three leaves that does not form a climbing vine.

Poison Oak – Similar to poison ivy, poison oak consists of three leaflets. One distinguishing feature of poison oak is its lobed leaves, which gives it the appearance of an oak leaf. Leaflets emerge with a reddish tinge in the spring, turn green and then assume varying shades of yellow and red in the fall. Atlantic poison oak can be found as ground vine and shrub, while Pacific poison oak grows as a ground vine, a shrub and a climbing vine.

Poison Sumac
– More allergenic than poison ivy and poison oak, poison sumac is a tall shrub or small tree that has a stem that contains seven to 13 leaves arranged in pairs. Distinctive features include leaflets that are elongated, oval and have smooth margins. The leaflets are 2-4 inches long, 1-2 inches wide, and have a smooth, velvety texture. Leaves are orange in early spring, and later become dark green and glossy. In the early fall, the leaves turn yellow, red or orange. Poison sumac prefers to grow in very wet areas such as bogs or swamps.

Symptoms of Skin Contact
Signs or symptoms associated with dermal contact with poisonous plants may include:

• Red rash within a few days of contact that can last two to three weeks;
• Itching;
• Swelling;
• Possible bumps or weeping blisters; and,
• Difficulty breathing, if you’ve inhaled the smoke from the burning of these poisonous plants

First Aid
Individuals who have come in contact with poisonous plants should:

• Immediately rinse with rubbing alcohol, specialized poison plant washes, degreasing soap (such as dishwashing soap) or detergent, and lots of water;
• Apply wet compresses, calamine lotion or over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to the skin to reduce itching and blistering;
• Use an antihistamine such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) to help relieve itching; and,
• Seek professional medical attention if the rash is widespread, on the face or genitals, does not improve within a few weeks, or if you have difficulty breathing from inhaling the smoke from burning poisonous plants.

Civilian Health Promotion Services will be offering educational briefings on summertime safety during July. For more information, visit AFMC Wellness or contact your local CHPS team. Comprehensive information on poisonous plants can be found on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website.