Itchy Rashes:  Leaves of Three, Let Them Be

Itchy Rashes: Leaves of Three, Let Them Be

Itchy, red rashes have many causes.  Poison ivy, poison oak and sumac are possible causes that are common.  Exposures usually happen while doing yard work, hiking, cycling on trails or can even by transferred by your pet who has rubbed against the plant. 

The common saying of “leaves of three, let them be” is not always correct.  While poison ivy usually has clusters of three, notched leaves, poison oak can have clusters of three, five or even seven leaves.  The leaves have notched, rounded off edges and sometimes has a furry-appearing underneath side. Both poison ivy and poison oak can appear as vines or shrubs. Sumac has clusters of 7-13 leaves, and usually a single leaf at the end of the vine.  Sumac is usually seen as a shrub or tree.

Most people (85%) will have an allergic reaction to exposure to the oils on the surface of the plant.  It causes an itchy, red, blistering rash.  It can be transferred, not only by your pet rubbing against the plant oils, but also from clothing, and tools that were exposed to the plant oils. 

Burning brush that has these substances in it can be even more harmful because it exposes the eyes, nose and even the lungs to these particles.  This can cause severe swelling and difficulty breathing, resulting in a true emergency

If you suspect you have come in to contact with the plant, wash with soap and water right away.  If this isn’t available, use hand wipes.  Never use rubbing alcohol since this can be harmful to your skin.  Most rashes can be treated at home; we rarely use steroids for this condition.  Cool compresses are helpful to reducing itching, as well as Benedryl or a product like Claritin.  To aid in drying the lesions use calamine lotion, which can sometimes be found in a clear gel or white solution, unlike the pink formula we all knew as children.

Seek care from a doctor if there is a rash around the eyes, a general rash over the body, or it involves the genitals (usually a result of scratching and transferring the oil from the plant!).  Report to your closest emergency room if you have trouble breathing, develop a fever with the rash, have swollen lymph nodes, or have extreme pain with the rash.

If you suspect your pet has come in to contact with the plant, wash them using gloves.  Although they rarely have rashes from it, you still want to protect them.

Wash your clothing, shoes, and even the tools used to prevent transferring the oils again.

Poison ivy and poison oak are not contagious, but protect the rash and let it dry to heal.


Photo is courtesy of Retrieved from


Robison, J (2016).  WebMD.  Retrieved from 5/4/17.

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