Recognize Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on January 26, 2022
3 min read

"Leaves of three, let it be." Many parents give their children that advice and it works, in the case of poison ivy and poison oak -- but not for poison sumac.

Learn what to watch out for, and what to do for poison ivy treatment.

You’ll notice three pointed leaves that change colors with the seasons:

  • Reddish in the spring
  • Green in the summer
  • Yellow, orange, or red in the fall

On some plants, the leaves have notched edges. On others, the leaves’ edges are smooth.

Poison ivy can grow as a bush or vine. You may see the vines climbing up the sides of trees or buildings.

The plants sometimes have white berries, which help it spread. Birds eat the berries and transplant the seeds on new areas along with their droppings. This may be why poison ivy is so common. It’s in each U.S. state, except for Alaska, Hawaii, and parts of the West Coast.

Look for three leaves shaped in lobes that look like the leaves of an oak tree.

The plant grows in low shrubs in the eastern U.S. On the Pacific Coast, it grows in long vines.

Its leaves grow in groups of seven to 13 along its stems.

The plant can be a shrub or a tree. It has clusters of small, yellowish flowers that mature into clusters of glossy yellow or off-white berries.

Poison sumac is most common in the Midwest. It’s also found up and down the East Coast. It favors bogs, swamps, and the shores of the Mississippi River.

1. Steer clear of areas where you know they grow.

2. Cover up with closed shoes, socks, long pants, long sleeves, and gloves. Wash any clothes that come in contact with poisonous plants as soon as possible.

3. If you get exposed, wash your skin with soap and warm water right away to get the plant’s oils off your skin. Some experts say that washing within the first hour may help limit the rash.

4. Scrub under your nails. You can spread poison ivy to other parts of your body if the oil is on your fingers.

5. If you think your pet has rolled around in a poisonous plant, give them a bath with pet shampoo and water. Wear rubber gloves while you do that.

6. Make it a habit to wash sports equipment, gardening tools, and other outdoor items with soap and water. Oil from poison ivy and other poisonous plants can get on golf clubs, balls, bats, and other objects, and can remain potent for as long as 5 years.


Use a cold compress, calamine lotion, non-prescription hydrocortisone cream, or an antihistamine to ease itching.

Call your doctor if the rash is near your eyes or covers a large part of your body.

Get emergency medical help or call 911 if you have a severe reaction.