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Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac -- the Basics

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Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are all plants that can cause a temporary, irritating rash when they come in contact with your skin. This rash is a form of allergic contact dermatitis. Dermatitis simply means an irritation of the skin. It's called "allergic contact dermatitis" because the rash is caused by contact with a substance to which you're allergic.

Who Is Allergic to Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac?

Have you ever wondered: Can I get poison ivy? What you're really asking is: Am I allergic to the plant? Not everyone is. Up to 85% of Americans are allergic to poison ivy, leaving at least 15% resistant to any reaction.

If you are allergic to poison ivy, you're more likely to be allergic to poison oak and poison sumac, because all three plants contain the same rash-triggering plant oil called urushiol (pronounced yoo-ROO-shee-all). You're also more likely to have an allergic reaction to other plant resins, such as the oil from Japanese lacquer trees (used on furniture), mango rinds, and cashew shells.

Sensitivity to poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac varies from a mild to severe reaction, and may not cause any reaction at all the first time you're exposed. Some adults who reacted to poison ivy as children may find that they are now less sensitive. Some may even lose their sensitivity altogether.

What Causes the Rashes of Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac?

Many people break out in a rash when urushiol touches the skin. And even if you don't recall touching the leaves of poison ivy, oak, or sumac, you may have unwittingly come in contact with their roots or stems. 

Urushiol quickly penetrates the skin, often leaving red lines that show where you brushed against the plant. Symptoms appear 24 to 72 hours after exposure. Scratching the itchy rash doesn't cause it to spread but can prolong skin healing and cause a secondary infection. The rash isn't contagious, so you won't spread it to others by going to school or work. 

Three types of transmission can occur:

  • Direct contact with the plant
  • Indirect contact when you touch pets, gardening tools, sports equipment, or other objects that had direct contact with the plant
  • Airborne contact from burning these plants, which releases particles of urushiol into the air that can penetrate the skin, eyes, nose, throat, or respiratory system
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