Your Guide to Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, and Poison Sumac

Working outdoors can put you in contact with a number of threats. Wasps and hornets can sting you. The sun can burn unprotected skin. Even plants can be serious threats to your health. Whether you’re gardening, mowing the lawn, or just spending some time throwing a football around, it pays to know a few things about some of the less visible threats, such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. In this guide, we’ll discuss how to identify these plants, how to remove them and prevent them from coming back, and what you need to do if you come in contact with them.

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy plant can be a vine, or it can grow into a shrub. In fact, it can vary drastically in appearance depending on where you are geographically speaking. However, in all areas, Poison Ivy has three leaves close together. There is often uniform in size, but you may also see one larger central leaf, with two smaller ones beside it. Poison Ivy leaves can be smooth or serrated, and may be shiny or matte. The only places that Poison Ivy does not grow in the United States are some areas of the Southwest (deserts), Alaska, and Hawaii.

Poison Oak

Like Poison Ivy, Poison Oak has three leaves clustered together. They are usually rounded and look similar to certain species of oak, which is where the name comes from. Like oak tree leaves, Poison Oak leaves are bright green in the spring, dark green in summer, and change to a reddish/orange in the fall. In most areas, poison oak grows into a shrub no more than about three feet tall. However, it can also grow as a vine in some areas. It is found predominantly on the East Coast, in the Southeast, and on the West Coast. It is rarely seen in the Great Plains states.

Poison Sumac

Poison Sumac plant looks nothing like poison oak or poison ivy. It usually has a red stem and each branch will have up to 13 paired leaves. A single leaf terminates each branch. The leaves are similar to true sumac in appearance, being oval in shape with smooth edges. Poison sumac can grow taller (up to 20 feet) than poison oak and is only found as a shrub or small tree. It is most common in wetlands and swamps, and is most prominent in the Southeast and the Midwest. 

How to Remove Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, or Poison Sumac

If you find that you’ve got poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac growing around your home or yard, it is vital that you remove it quickly. However, you must do so correctly, or you risk coming into contact with the plant, which can have consequences that range from uncomfortable to life-threatening.

The safest solution is to use an herbicide. There are many, many options on the market and available at your local DIY store. Simply spray down the plants, wait for the herbicide to kill the plant, and then remove it (while dressed appropriately, which we’ll cover in a moment).

Of course, you may find that you cannot use herbicides. If the plant is growing near or even on or within a plant that you want to save, you’ll need a non-chemical solution to the situation. To do this, you will need to remove the entire plant, including the roots. You’ll need:

  • Long pants
  • Long sleeved shirt
  • Thick gloves

Pull out the entire plant and place it in a plastic bag, then dispose of it.

NOTE: Never, ever burn poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. The chemical that causes itching (called urushiol) can disperse into the air, where you may breathe it in. This can allow it to affect your lungs and even enter your bloodstream.

If you are not adverse to spraying the plant and just want to avoid using store-bought herbicides, you can make your own with the following recipe:

  • 1 cup salt
  • 1 gallon white vinegar
  • 8 drops dish soap

Combine the vinegar and salt in a pan and heat until the salt is dissolved. Let it cool, then add the dish soap. Add to a spray bottle and spray the entire plant. Note that this method will kill any vegetation it comes in contact with, so use it with care.

What to Do If You Come into Contact with It

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you’ll come into contact with Poison Oak, Poison Ivy, or Poison Sumac. If left untreated, the urushiol will cause a blistered, itchy rash. It can also spread to other areas of your body if you are not careful. Thankfully, there are ways that you can deal with the situation easily.

One option is to use a product like Zanfel to wash the urushiol away. It can be used at any point after you have come into contact with the plant, and is safe for use on all external body parts. You just need to wet the area, apply a small amount of the cream to your palm, rub it into a paste, and then apply it to the area. Follow the directions on the package and make sure to rinse thoroughly. As it washes away, it will take the urushiol with it.

Other options can work, too, provided you begin treatment in time. You can use household rubbing alcohol to remove the urushiol from the skin if you act quickly. If you come into contact with the plant and do not realize it, antihistamine creams can help to control the itching and burning sensation. 

Note that if you have difficulty breathing, begin running a fever of higher than 100 degrees, notice pus within the rash, or your eyes begin to swell, you should seek medical attention immediately. If your skin itches everywhere and nothing seems to help it, this is a sign of a serious medical emergency, as well.


In the end, dealing with poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac requires vigilance and preparedness. However, it can be done, and it can be done safely.