Touching the wrong plant can be a ‘rash’ decision

Be wary of the “greenery” when out and about this time of year. Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are lurking. (Staff photo: Bob Kornegay)

Outdoors people should be aware this summer that Southwest Georgia and surrounding locales are home to a number of poisonous plants that many people may not recognize or might brush against or touch without realizing it.

Three common species of this aggravating native flora often manifest themselves on the human body as a fiercely itching red rash that torments to distraction those who are sensitive to its presence. They are poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), poison oak (Toxicodendron pubescens), and poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).

“These three poisonous plant species are quite closely related,” said wildlife biologist Griff Johnson. “They are very common throughout the Southeast and are widely distributed among natural habitats such as fence rows, fields, mature forests, forest thinnings, and even your own backyard. If you spend time in the outdoors, you should familiarize yourself with all of them to make sure you can easily avoid contact. Poison ivy and poison oak are easily identifiable, but poison sumac can be difficult at times.”

The leaves of all three of these common plants are green in color. As they reach the end of their growing season in the fall, they usually turn red or orange. The leaves vary greatly in size, texture, and in the number of lobes they exhibit. These characteristics generally depend upon habitat and are not always reliable for identification purposes. The most positive identification feature of this noxious vegetation lies in the fact that the leaves of both poison ivy and poison oak have three leaflets, with those of poison oak generally resembling white oak leaves. Hence, the old saying, “Leaflets of three, let it be.”

Poison ivy can be easily confused with Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), another native (and harmless) wild vine. Virginia creeper exhibits many of the same colors and growth habits of poison ivy and is found in similar habitats. Both plants often grow and thrive together in the same locations. The leaves of Virginia creeper, however, are always divided into five leaflets, rather than three, which makes differentiation between the two relatively simple just by careful observation.

Poison sumac leaves have seven to 13 leaflets arranged opposite of each other with one leaflet at the tip. Poison sumac, on the other hand, is a tall shrub or small tree generally found in wet or swampy areas. Poison ivy is usually seen as a vine climbing trees or other available support structures. However, it will also grow as a small shrub covering the forest floor. Poison oak grows, often profusely, as a small bush in forested areas.

“The sap from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac contains toxic oils that potentially cause painful skin irritation, with some people’s skin being more susceptible than others’,” Johnson explained. “The oils in the sap do not vaporize at normal temperatures, which generally means actual contact with the sap must occur before a rash will form. This can happen simply by handling or brushing against the plants. Wearing gloves, long pants, and long sleeves when you are near these plants is a good way to reduce the risk of exposure.”

According to Johnson, there are certain exceptions to the skin-contact rule that make it possible to be infected with a rash without actually touching the plant.

“Burning these plants releases the toxic oil into the smoke,” he said. “So when burning outdoors, stay out of the smoke as much as practical. Also, though it is not common, harvesting game such as squirrels or deer may cause outbreaks when cleaning the harvested animal. This might happen if the animal being cleaned has recently ingested any part of the plant or has oily toxin on its fur. This has no effect on the meat.”

If a person accidentally and knowingly comes into contact with any of these poisonous plant species, it is important to wash generously with a strong soap to remove the oily toxin. If a rash forms, do not scratch (Much easier said than done, as the itch from all three is especially virulent). Calamine lotion can be used to control the itch and keep the rash dry. Clean cloth wraps soaked in Epsom salts and baking soda can also be used, and cornstarch paste is particularly good for keeping rash welts covered and dry.

Severe cases of poisonous plant-toxin outbreak (those in which a large skin-surface area is affected) can sometimes be difficult to control on one’s own with nothing but homemade or over-the-counter remedies. In those instances, a doctor should be consulted.

On a positive note, the long-held belief that poison ivy rash can be spread by scratching is now generally considered a myth. Though frequent scratching of the rash can greatly increase the risk of secondary topical infection and heighten irritation, it does not create rash areas on other parts of the body subsequently touched. Rash outbreaks are limited to areas that have come into direct contact with the toxic oils from the plants themselves.

“The next time you are enjoying the great outdoors, whether it is hunting, hiking, or just cleaning up the yard, be careful and watchful,” Johnson concluded. “These poisonous native plant species are very prevalent throughout the Southeast. Taking proper precautions will save you a lot of aggravation from a rash that will drive you crazy with an itch that shouldn’t be scratched.”

Bob Kornegay writes about the outdoors for The Albany Herald.

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