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Learn How To Recognize Poison Oak

Updated on July 13, 2016

Pictures of Poison Oak

Little sprig of poison oak on the forest floor -summer foliage
Little sprig of poison oak on the forest floor -summer foliage | Source
Poison oak in spring
Poison oak in spring | Source
Sometimes, poison oak makes impressively large vines
Sometimes, poison oak makes impressively large vines | Source
And sometimes it just makes a tangled thicket!
And sometimes it just makes a tangled thicket! | Source
Sometimes it grows into a bush [right-hand side of picture]
Sometimes it grows into a bush [right-hand side of picture] | Source
Pinks, reds, and oranges are common poison oak fall colors
Pinks, reds, and oranges are common poison oak fall colors | Source
Poison oak growing beneath real oak trees
Poison oak growing beneath real oak trees | Source
The red part is the poison oak
The red part is the poison oak | Source
Red poison oak leaves
Red poison oak leaves | Source

So What Is Poison Oak, Anyway?

You might wake up one morning covered in painful, itchy red bumps - as you try to figure out what has caused it, you remember that walk in the woods the day before, and wonder if you brushed against something unpleasant.

Does this sound familiar?

Western Poison Oak [Toxicodendron diversilobum] is a plant that grows on the Pacific Coast of North America.

All parts of the plant contain an oily chemical called Urushiol, which causes a nasty allergic reaction in about 70% of the population. All you have to do is touch your skin against a leaf or branch to get a rash.

If you're one of the lucky ones who isn't allergic, you should still try to avoid it - repeated exposure to the oil can cause you to develop an allergy to it.

If you enjoy hiking or gardening, or work regularly outdoors, it's important to know how to recognize this plant, and stay safe from it.

Recognizing Poison Oak

Leaves of three,

let it it be.

Ever heard this little rhyme? Although it's true that poison oak usually has "leaves of three" - three segments to each leaf - this may not be very useful, because many, many other plants also do.

Unless you want to avoid half the plants in the forest, it's better to become familiar with how poison oak can be distinguished from everything else.

Features of Poison Oak

  • Glossy-looking leaves
  • Bright green through the summer
  • Often has red leaves in spring
  • Clusters of tiny, hard, whitish-green berries
  • Leaves are usually divided into three leaflets, with lobed or toothed edges
  • Often grows as a tangled thicket under trees
  • Stems often have small black stains [looks like dirty engine oil dribbled on it]
  • Loses leaves in the winter [it is still poisonous with no leaves]

Poison Oak will NOT have:

  • Thorns
  • Stinging leaves
  • Very fuzzy leaves

What makes it hard to recognize?

Poison oak is difficult to recognize because the growth form of the plant takes so many different shapes. It can grow as:

  • A thick vine, climbing up trees
  • Thin, short stems, sprouting up all over a forest floor
  • A large, sturdy bush [usually in open fields]
  • A tangled thicket, often under trees or at the edge of the forest

Staying safe

  • You can get poison oak by touching any part of the plant - leaves, root, stems, etc. Just brushing against it can be enough, but if you break it, you'll naturally be exposed to more oils.
  • Keep a close eye on what you're walking through. If it looks suspicious, go around instead of through it.
  • If you know you're walking in an area with a lot of poison oak, wear long pants and closed shoes. When you get home, change clothes immediately [before you sit down in your favorite chair or lay across your bed].
  • If you have a dog, give it a bath before you cuddle it or let it on any furniture - their fur protects them, but they'll still spread the oils all over you.
  • If you're trying to remove a poison oak plant, wear gloves and long sleeves, and face protection.
  • Even if the plant is dormant, it can still give you a rash - and it's harder to spot the plants when they're just bare twigs.
  • The poison is most potent in the early spring, just as the new leaves are starting to come out.
  • NEVER burn poison oak. If the smoke is inhaled, it can cause severe lung damage.

What to do if you realize you've touched it

If you realize you've brushed against poison oak, grab a handful of fresh soil [make sure it doesn't have any poison oak leaves or roots in it!] and scrub it over the affected area. This absorbs and removes some of the oils.

As soon as you can, wash with warm water and soap, to destroy the oil.

What to do if you've got a rash

So you didn't notice you walked through it in time - what do you do now?

  • Over-the-counter calamine lotions can sooth it somewhat
  • Ice or cold water can reduce the inflammation and make it itch less
  • Don't break the blisters - it'll make it slower to heal and increase risk of infection
  • Don't scratch it!
  • If it's severe, see a doctor to talk about prescription treatments


How bad is it, really?

How severe it is depends on your level of sensitivity and the amount of exposure.

Some people never get it at all [although they can still develop the allergy later - repeated exposure increases the likelihood].

For most people, it's an irritating rash that lasts a few days, itches like a bug bite, and then goes away.

But for some, a severe case can result in needing hospitalization. So be careful!

So it's evil - no, wait!

Some people are all for eradicating poison oak wherever it may be found, and anyone who has had a case is bound to feel some sympathy toward that cause.

However, poison oak does have many benefits to the local ecosystem, which should not be overlooked.

  • It is a "nurse plant" in areas where woodland has been removed - protecting new tree growth until it can become established.
  • It provides shelter for small animals, including hares, bush bunnies, woodrats, and chipmunks
  • Deer often feed on the leaves
  • The berries provide a good winter food source for many birds
  • Studies have shown that high concentrations of poison oak is linked to much higher bird diversity
  • The endangered least Bell's vireo prefers to nest in poison oak

And, of course, few plants have prettier fall foliage. Just don't go picking any to garland your house.

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Krissa, this is a great and timely hub for spring, summer and fall seasons, when you have to watch out for poison oak. Very informative and interesting. Voted up!

    • KL Klein profile imageAUTHOR

      Krissa Klein 

      4 years ago from California

      Thank you Aplethora!

      I just got a poison oak rash this week - apparently I wasn't as careful as I'm always telling people to be. :)

    • Aplethora23 profile image

      Angie Power 

      5 years ago from North Cali

      Thank you for this informative article. I think ive got a few poison oak plants in my yard. Voted up.

    • KL Klein profile imageAUTHOR

      Krissa Klein 

      5 years ago from California

      I believe it's the same chemical in both poison oak and poison ivy - nasty stuff to get on you! As a kid, I knew someone who was very sensitive, and ended up in the hospital after falling headlong into a patch of poison oak.

    • wabash annie profile image

      wabash annie 

      5 years ago from Colorado Front Range

      I've not encountered poison oak but have had severe poison ivy issues. When young, my mother, sister-in-law, and I were digging sassafras roots in the woods and all three of us must have handled the ivy. Wow! Welts from ivy and oak can be terrible. Your hub contained excellent information ... thanks for writing on this topic.

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