Poisonous Plants: Identify or Itch Like Crazy

Poisonous Plants: Identify or Itch Like Crazy

Although I have hunted over much of the U.S., I have managed to avoid most irritating experiences with poisonous plants. That said, I'm not the guy who can roll around in a patch of poison ivy (15 percent of the population is resistant to the plant) as I discovered on a deer hunt years ago. Here's how you can avoid what I went through when dealing with poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac this fall when you head to the deer woods.


It was the great deer state of Alabama that gave me my nastiest case of the "scratch-and-itch" after spending a day hanging treestands one December. With no leaves to help identify the culprit, I spent the day cutting and handling the rope-like flora with no idea they were poison ivy vines. Nor did I know the vines themselves could be so caustic. Within 24 hours, I was exceptionally miserable; driving me off my treestand to seek help at a Doc — in — a-Box. It took a steroid shot before I came close to restful night's sleep and returned to the deer woods.


When you break out in a rash from a poisonous plant, you are essentially having a simple, yet highly irritating reaction, called allergic contact dermatitis, from the common poisonous plant oil, urushiol (pronounced yoo-ROO-shee-all).

If you're exposed, there are a few simple remedies to keep you on your stand, and a few missteps to avoid crying for relief. Keep reading, and you'll know just what to do the next time your skin is raising up with bubbles and a viciously itchy rash.


Poisonous Plants: The Big Three

Although there are some nasty poisonous plants, like devil's club and cow parsnip in the great northern woods, for the most part, classic poison ivy will be the most likely outdoor skin rash culprit.

Poison Ivy

identification and treatment of poisonous plants

When it comes to nasty poisonous plants, poison ivy rules the roost. It resides in bulk in every state except Alaska and Hawaii. The plant comes in bushy shrubs and will grow into long and thick vines.

To identify it, look for three leaves in a cluster with white or cream-colored berries and remember the old Boy Scout adage: "leaflets three, let it be." During the fall, the plant will sport yellows and reds, and the vines are similar to rope with a furry-like exterior, similar to worn hemp. Even with no leaves on the plant, handling the stems and heavier vines can be troublesome.

Poison Oak

Avoiding poisonous plants

Although it's not nearly as common as poison ivy, poison oak resides mostly in the Mountain West. There's another subspecies in the Mountain East, but again, it's far less common.

Like poison ivy, this poisonous plant can grow in a vine, or in a shrub-like plant. The oak-like leaves typically are in clusters of three. But poison oak can be a tricky devil, sometimes sprouting as many as seven leaves in a single cluster.

 Poison Sumac

Identifying poisonous plants

Primarily a product of the Deep South, and in some cases wet regions of the northern U.S., poison sumac is far less common than even poison oak.

Growing as a shrub or small tree, the plant has seven to 13 leaflets on each side that end in points. And just to be clear, when it comes to poisonous plants, sumac is no less lethal than its counterparts.

Do & Don't Treatments

If you feel swelling or numbness in your eyes, throat, and lips, or if you're coughing, see a doctor immediately. Also seek medical attention if large areas of your body have a rash, or if your blisters have pus. Pay attention and remain vigilant if you've come into contact with any of these plants while they are being burned. Any exposure to smoke from poisonous plants warrants an immediate visit to an ER.

The Don'ts

It takes about 24 hours for symptoms to surface if you've been exposed to any of the three poisonous plants described. Your sensitivity level and the extent of your exposure will determine just how miserable you're going to be.

The first item on the list is laundry. Never, and I mean never, wear the clothes you had on during your initial exposure until they have been washed. And make sure you have clean bedding to sleep in. A couple of nights in the sheets you slept in when you came back from the woods can really up the itch factor.

Also stay away from hot water, it can inflame the skin advancing your rash significantly and, of course, try not to scratch.

The Do's

Try not to sweat or overheat yourself during the day; clearly it will not help your condition. Try ice packs, to cool your skin and reduce the inflammation. Remember to wear clean clothes and change your sheets nightly until the rash regresses.

Treatment for poisonous plants

Try a topical over the counter cream such as Dr. Burkenstock's, Itch Stuff. This 'stuff' is made to combat any itch, whether from nasty bug bites or an unwelcome tryst with poisonous plants. A product of the Deep sweaty and itchy South, the 'stuff' can really make a difference.

Other home remedies include applying an oatmeal or baking soda paste. The goo can help dry out the skin and I'm guessing it might even work as a scent cover.

Before you depart on this season's hunt, add a topical treatment as a part of your traveler's first aid kit. Remember, follow the "Do's", avoid the "Don'ts" and visually know your poisonous plants in every season. Be plant aware and your next hunt will be free from some nasty skin unpleasantries.

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