Poison Oak Removal: Learn How To Get Rid Of Poison Oak Plants

Poison Oak Removal: Learn How To Get Rid Of Poison Oak Plants

The term “poison” in the common name of the shrub Toxicodendron diversilobum says it all. Poison oak leaves look rather like the leaves from the spreading oak, but the effects are very different. Your skin will itch, sting and burn if you come into contact with the foliage of poison oak.

When you have poison oak growing near your house, your thoughts turn to poison oak removal. The plant is an American native beloved by birds. They eat the berries then spread the seeds far and wide. Complete eradication is impossible, so you’ll have to consider your poison oak control options.

What Does Poison Oak Look Like?

In order to start poison oak removal, you have to be able to identify the plant. Given the pain it causes humans, you might imagine that it is lethal-looking, but it’s not. It is green and lush, growing a either a shrub or a vine.

Poison oak leaves are solid, with a little of the scalloped oak shape. They hang from the stems in groups of three. If you are wondering about poison oak vs. poison ivy, the latter’s leaves also hang in groups of three and cause the same stinging itch on contact. However, poison ivy’s leaf edges are smooth and slightly pointed, not scalloped.

Both plants are deciduous and their looks change with the seasons. Both turn yellow or other fall colors in autumn, lose their leaves in winter and develop small flowers in spring.

How to Get Rid of Poison Oak

If you want to learn how to get rid of poison oak, first realize that total poison oak removal is not possible. Gardeners with a large poison oak “crop” cannot count on simply getting rid of poison oak plants.

First, it is difficult to remove the standing poison oak, given your skin’s reaction to it. Secondly, even as you chop the plants down with a hoe or pull them up by hand, birds are sowing more seeds for next year.

Instead, consider poison oak control options. You can mechanically remove enough poison oak to be able to walk in and out of your house safely. Use a hoe or a mower for best results.

If you are using mechanical means, or pulling up the plants by hand, wear thick protective clothing, footwear and gloves to protect your skin. Never burn poison oak since the fumes can be lethal.

Other poison oak control options include inviting goats into your backyard. Goats love to snack on poison oak leaves, but you’ll need a lot of goats for a big crop.

You can also use herbicides to kill the plants. Glyphosate is one of the most effective. Apply it after the fruit has formed but before the leaves have changed color. Remember, however, that gyphosate is a nonselective compound and it will kill all plants, not just poison oak.

Note: Chemical control should only be used as a last resort, as organic approaches are safer and much more environmentally friendly.

“Leaves of three, let it be!” “Hairy vine, no friend of mine!” Learn how to spot poison oak, tell the difference between poison oak and poison ivy, and treat a poison oak rash.

What is the Difference Between Poison Oak and Poison Ivy?

Poison oak is a relative of poison ivy. There are many similarities:

  • Both plants contain the same toxic resin, urushiol in all parts of the plant (toxic to humans but harmless to animals).
  • Both plants have three leaflets, white flowers in spring, and can grow as a vine or a shrub.
  • Leaflets can range in size from the length of your thumb to the length of your hand.
  • Middle leaflet has a notably longer stem than the two side leaflets, though more obvious in poison ivy than poison oak.
  • Depending on the season, leaf color can range from green to orange and even a dark purplish-red.

But they are indeed different plants. In North America, there are two species of poison oak: Atlantic (Eastern) and Pacific (Western).

Poison ivy (left) vs. poison oak (right)

How to Identify Poison Oak

  • Poison oak is a low-growing, upright shrub. It can grow to be about 3 feet tall, sometimes giving it the appearance of a vine.
  • Leaf shape resembles an oak leaf (hence the name, poison oak), but it’s not a member of the oak family.
  • Leaflets are duller green than poison ivy and usually more distinctly lobed or toothed.
  • Leaflets have hairs on both sides, unlike poison ivy.
  • Poison oak tends to grow at elevations between sea level and 5,000 feet.
  • While the fruit of poison ivy is the color of pearls, poison oak fruit (called “drupes”) has a tan color.

At the end of the day, just remember: Leaves of three, let it be. In other words, if you see a plant with clusters of three leaves, don’t touch it!

Left: Poison Oak can be red in the fall, and its berries are tan when mature. Right: Poison Oak leaflets showing coloration.

Poison Oak Symptoms

Symptoms of poison oak include itchy red rashes that can resemble burns, swelling, and even blistering.

Symptoms can take 24-48 hours or even up to a week to show up, particularly if its your first exposure!

Poison oak, like poison ivy, contains urushiol. This oily substance is what causes a poison oak rash, and it can be almost impossible to avoid. Upon contact with your body, urushiol immediately forms a chemical bond to the skin and causes an almost unstoppable allergic reaction. Urushiol will stay on clothes, pets, or other materials for months, and its potency lasts. This means that you could even get poison oak without going anywhere near it.

The urushiol resin can cause harsher reactions for those who have been exposed to it before. Sensitivity to urushiol might decrease if you do not come into contact with it until later in life. Only about 15 percent of people are resistant to urushiol, so don’t feel safe around poison oak unless you are absolutely sure you are resistant. You also may become sensitive with repeated exposure, so your resistance might be short-lived.

Danger: Smoke inhalation from burning poison oak can send you straight to the emergency room. Avoid burning this plant (and poison ivy)!

Poison Oak Treatment

Your best chance at avoiding a reaction is to treat poison oak within 10 minutes of contact.

Urushiol is not water-soluble! Use strong soaps (like dish soap) and wash with cold water to keep the oils from spreading. Cleanse the area of contact within the first ten minutes, then rinse off with cold water. As urushiol can remain active for years, you’ll want to wash any clothes, items, or furniture that may have come into contact with the invisible oily residue.

If you don’t catch the exposure immediately, treat the resulting itchy rash and blisters topically with calamine lotion, baking soda pastes, aloe vera, and a number of commercial products. If you don’t mind mixing breakfast and skin care, one tried-and-true remedy for itchy skin is oatmeal. Since poison oak rash is the same as the poison ivy rash, see more remedies on our poison ivy page. If poison oak is extremely serious, speak to your doctor about a prescription.

Of course, the best remedy is always prevention study our photos so you can recognize poison oak.

Have you ever had a run-in with poison oak? Tell us about it in the comments below!

How to Get Rid of Poison Oak Rash

Last Updated: December 20, 2020 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Alan O. Khadavi, MD, FACAAI. Dr. Alan O. Khadavi is a Board Certified Allergist and a Pediatric Allergy Specialist based in Los Angeles, California. He holds a BS in biochemistry from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook and an MD from the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn. Dr. Khadavi completed his pediatric residency at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New York, and then went on to complete his allergy and immunology fellowship and pediatric residency at Long Island College Hospital. He is board certified in adult and pediatric allergy/immunology. Dr. Khadavi is a Diplomate of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology, a Fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), and a member of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). Dr. Khadavi's honors include Castle Connolly’s list of Top Doctors 2013-2020, and Patient Choice Awards "Most Compassionate Doctor" in 2013 & 2014.

There are 24 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, 100% of readers who voted found the article helpful, earning it our reader-approved status.

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Dealing with a poison oak rash can be annoying, but there are plenty of ways to relieve your symptoms. The rash is caused by urushiol, an oil that naturally covers the surface of the plant. Since poison ivy contains the exact same oil, exposures to either plant can be treated nearly the same exact way. [1] X Research source The rash itself appears 12-48 hours after exposure and typically lasts for 2-3 weeks before going away on its own. While you can usually treat a poison oak rash at home, you may need to see a doctor if the rash spreads after it first appears, begins swelling, or oozes pus.

How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac Rash

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac facts

  • Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are poisonous plants that can cause an itchyrash upon contact.
  • A substance called urushiol, found in these plants, causes the rash.
  • The rash is not contagious.
  • The rash usually disappears in one to three weeks.
  • The majority of cases can be treated at home.

What are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac?

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac (belonging to the Anacardiaceae family) are plants that can cause a rash if individuals come in contact with the oily resin found in them.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans -- eastern poison ivy/Toxicodendron rydbergii -- western poison ivy) typically grows as a vine or shrub, and it can be found throughout much of North America (except in the desert, Alaska, and Hawaii). It grows in open fields, wooded areas, on the roadside, and along riverbanks. It can also be found in urban areas, such as parks or backyards. Poison ivy plants typically have leaf arrangements that are clustered in groups of three leaflets (trifoiate), though this can vary. The color and shape of the leaves may also vary depending upon the exact species, the local environment, and the time of year. The plant may have yellow or green flowers, and white to green-yellow berries, depending on the season. Eastern poison ivy typically grows as a hairy ropelike vine, whereas western poison ivy tends to grow as a low shrub.

Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) grows as a vine or shrub, and it is found in the western United States and British Columbia. It also has a leaf arrangement similar to poison ivy, with clusters of three leaflets. The leaves may sometimes resemble true oak leaves.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) grows as a shrub or small tree, and it is found in the eastern/southeastern United States. It grows in very wet areas, and it can be found along the banks of the Mississippi River. Each stem contains seven to 13 leaves arranged in pairs. It has the potential to cause a more severe rash than either poison ivy or poison oak.

Poison Ivy Treatment and Rash Prevention

Common Myths and Truths About Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

Myth #7: Once the eruption occurs, there are a variety of treatments that easily suppress the reaction and can be performed without visiting your physician. They vary from applying human urine to the site of the eruption to drenching the skin in gasoline.
Truth: For mild local reactions, it is generally necessary to apply potent topical steroids to the site for two to three weeks.

What causes a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

Exposure to all of these plants can produce a rash, which is caused by sensitivity to an oily resin found in these plants called urushiol. This substance can be found on the leaves, stems, flowers, and roots of these plants. Interestingly, it can remain active even after the plant has died. Exposure to even very small amounts of urushiol, amounts less than a grain of table salt, will lead to the development of a rash in 80%-90% of individuals.

The rash (an allergic contact dermatitis) can be caused by direct contact with urushiol by touching the plants or by indirect contact with the plant oil that may have contaminated a pet's fur, tools, clothing, or other surfaces. Airborne contact is also possible if these plants are burned and the urushiol particles land on the skin, and it can affect the lungs as well if the urushiol is inhaled. In the United States, Toxicodendron dermatitis is the most common cause of contact dermatitis.

Sensitivity to urushiol occurs when individuals come into contact with it. The first time a person is exposed, they may not develop a rash. However, with repeated exposure, sensitivity develops that ultimately leads to the development of the characteristic rash. Most people (about 85%) will develop sensitivity, while a small percentage of individuals (about 15%) never develop an allergic reaction to urushiol.


What are risk factors for poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

Any individual who comes into contact with these plants is at risk for developing the rash. However, people who spend more time outdoors in geographic areas where these plants are known to grow are at higher risk. This may include certain occupations associated with outdoor work in these areas, such as gardeners, groundskeepers, farmers, forestry workers, and construction workers. Hiking enthusiasts may also be at higher risk if they venture into areas where these plants are present.

What are symptoms and signs of a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

Susceptible people will develop the characteristic rash after exposure to the urushiol from these plants, typically within 12-72 hours after the initial contact. The signs and symptoms can include the following:

  • Redness of the skin
  • Swelling of the skin
  • Itching of the skin
  • An outbreak of small or large blisters

The rash may appear bumpy, streaky, linear, or patchy, and it will affect the areas that have come into contact with the oil resin. Areas that have been exposed to a larger amount of urushiol may develop the rash more quickly, and the rash may appear more severe. In some instances, new lesions may continue to appear for up to two to three weeks. One can spread the rash to other parts of the body if one's contaminated hands (with the oil resin) touch other areas. The fluid that sometimes oozes from the blisters does not contain urushiol and therefore does not spread the rash, and other individuals who touch this fluid will not develop the rash. In order to spread the rash to someone else, they must directly come into contact with the oil resin. Generally speaking, the rash slowly improves and disappears after one to three weeks in most individuals. Overall, the symptoms may range from mild to severe. Rarely, in extreme cases, an anaphylactic reaction can develop.

If these plants are burned, the airborne particles of urushiol can be inhaled, causing respiratory difficulty from irritation of the lungs. Occasionally, this reaction can be severe.

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What types of doctors treat poison ivy, oak, and sumac rash?

The rash produced by exposure to poison ivy, oak, and sumac is generally treated by a primary-care physician, including family physicians, internists, and pediatricians. In cases where the diagnosis is not clear, a dermatologist may be consulted.

How do physicians diagnose poison ivy, oak, and sumac rashes?

The diagnosis of this rash is typically made by a health-care professional after obtaining a thorough history and performing a detailed exam of the skin. While some individuals will know and report exposure to poison ivy, oak, or sumac, others may not be aware of it and may not recall any exposure. The appearance of the characteristic rash is usually all that is needed to make the diagnosis. No blood tests or imaging studies are necessary.

What is the treatment for a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

The initial treatment for someone who has recently been exposed to any of these plants includes rinsing the affected area with copious amounts of warm water within 20-30 minutes of exposure to remove the oily plant resin. The effectiveness of rinsing decreases with the passage of time, as the oily plant resin is quickly absorbed into the skin. Some authorities recommend rinsing with rubbing alcohol, commercially available poisonous plant washes, or degreasing soaps and detergents. It is also important to scrub under the fingernails to remove any remnants of the plant resin. In addition, thoroughly clean clothing or any objects that may have come into contact with these plants.

If the characteristic rash develops, initial treatment consists of symptomatic care, as in most cases, the rash will improve on its own after one to three weeks. Self-care at home is usually all that is necessary. In the meantime, the following treatments may be useful to alleviate symptoms:

  • Apply cool compresses to the skin.
  • Use topical treatments to relieve itching, including calamine lotion, oatmeal baths, Tecnu, Zanfel, or aluminum acetate (Domeboro solution).
  • Oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), can also help relieve itching.
  • For a more severe rash, a health-care professional may prescribe a high-potency steroid cream or an oral corticosteroid (such as prednisone).
  • Over-the-counterpain medication may be necessary for pain control.
  • Antibiotics may be prescribed if the rash becomes infected. Avoid scratching the rash to prevent the development of a bacterial infection.
  • Go to the nearest emergency department or call an ambulance if experiencing an anaphylactic reaction (severe allergic reaction) characterized by difficulty breathing, difficulty swallowing, facial swelling, or if one has had a previous severe reaction to these plants. Also seek medical care if the rash involves the genitals or the face or if the rash shows signs of infection.


Are there any home remedies for a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

As above, in the majority of cases, the symptoms can be controlled at home with the aforementioned medications/formulations until the rash resolves. Though different herbal folk remedies have been used in the past, no definite effective therapy can be recommended at this time.

What is the prognosis of a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

In general, the prognosis is excellent. In the vast majority of cases, the rash will improve on its own within one to three weeks without any complications, and all that is necessary is self-care at home with treatment to relieve the itching.

Is it possible to prevent a poison ivy, oak, or sumac rash?

There are measures that can be taken to help prevent the rash caused by exposure to these plants, including the following:

  • Learn to recognize these plants in order to avoid contact with them.
  • Wear protective clothing that covers the skin, including gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and boots if in a high-risk area.
  • If the possibility of contact with these plants exists, apply commercially available barrier creams to the skin, which may help prevent or lessen the exposure to the toxic plant oils. These products usually contain bentoquatam (IvyBlock) and should be applied before going outdoors.
  • Do not burn these plants, as this can release urushiol into the air.
  • Carefully remove these plants if they are growing near one's home. Be sure to wear protective clothing and gloves.
  • Thoroughly wash clothing or any other objects that may have come into contact with these plants, as they can retain the plant oil and cause a rash if worn or touched.
  • If a pet has been exposed to these plants, wear protective gloves and give them a bath.

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First, the facts about poison oak and poison ivy.

Fact #1 - The thing you are allergic to is something called urushiol.

The allergic rash of poison oak and poison ivy (Toxicodendron dermatitis) comes from an allergic reaction due to contact with the urushiol allergen. This allergen is found in the family of plants called Anacardiaceae which include:

  1. Poison ivy
  2. Poison oak
  3. Poison sumac
  4. Japanese lacquer tree
  5. Cashew nut tree (the allergen is in the nut shell)
  6. Mango (the allergen is in the fruit rind, leaves and sap)
  7. Rengas tree
  8. Indian marking nut tree
  9. Ginkgo (the allergen is in the fruit pulp)
  10. Brazilian pepper tree, also called Florida holly
  11. Poisonwood tree

If you are allergic to poison oak or poison ivy, then assume you are allergic to all of these plants and/or plant parts.

Fact #2 - The rash comes from direct contact with urushiol

The rash begins when you touch, ingest or breathe the urushiol allergen.

In the case of poison oak and poison ivy, the allergen typically comes into direct contact your skin when you:

  1. Touch the plant directly.
  2. Touch something with the oil on it (e.g. your cat that just ran through poison oak, your kids' clothing when they've been out playing in the poison oak, etc.).

Blisters from the rash of poison oak and ivy do NOT contain urushiol oil and are not contagious!

Really!! Once the oil is washed off the skin, it is gone and your skin, no matter how bad it has broken out, is not contagious (more on that below).

Allergic urushiol oil can also come into contact with your skin when it is spread in the air by smoke from the burning of the plants in the Anacardiaceae family, and in the wind from weed-whacking the plants.

One caveat, in highly-allergic people, eating the allergens will cause a rash either around the buttocks or over the entire body from a systemic allergic reaction. Some homeopathic remedies contain Rhus Tox, the same allergen. And, I’ve seen some wild total-body allergic rashes in patients who have poison oak and decide to "support their immune system" by taking Rhus Tox. Don't do it!

Why does the rash of poison oak or poison ivy seem contagious?

It's because the rash usually starts showing up within two days after exposure, AND it continues to evolve for upwards of another two weeks or so. It's not because it is contagious and you keep getting it from touching your involved skin. It's because:

  • The more allergic you are, the faster the rash shows up.
  • Parts of your skin that have had the rash before react faster.
  • Parts of your skin that had a big dose of plant-allergen oil react faster.
  • Parts of your skin that never had the rash, and that got low-dose exposure, react much more slowly, sometimes not showing the rash for a week or two.

Again, it's worth repeating. It is not because you touched the rash on other parts of your skin and it "spread."

Once you’ve washed the plant oil off of your skin, your skin is no longer contagious. That said, you can get re-exposed from contaminated pets, clothing, etc. that still have the oil on them.

The more allergic, and the bigger the dose of allergen oil you touched, the more dramatic the rash. The rash can vary from a little patch of itchy, scaling skin to giant blisters that weep and ooze on plaques of intensely swollen, red and itchy skin.

What can you do to prevent getting the rash of poison oak or ivy?

Learn to identify the poison oak and ivy plants and then avoid them.

Poison oak and ivy plants look very similar. They both have three leaflets arising from a node on the stem. Wikipedia has a very detailed description to help you learn how to identify poison oak and ivy.

Leaflets three, let them be!

Wash your skin with soap and water within five minutes after coming into contact with the oil. This can remove the oil so that it can't be absorbed by your skin. You can actually prevent the rash all together, but you have to be fast and thorough, giving your skin a good washing.

Wash anything that might be contaminated with the oil, including pets, clothing, tools, and toys - anything that touched the plant oil. Give it a good think and try to find everything that might even remotely have gotten contaminated - and wash it!

How do you treat poison oak or poison ivy once the rash starts?

As soon as you start to develop the itchy rash:

  1. Apply cortisone cream. You may need a prescription from your doctor since over-the-counter hydrocortisone isn’t very strong.
  2. Keep itchy skin cool to help relieve itch and prevent further inflammation. Hot water may soothe temporarily, but it will make the itching worse overall. Sometimes, a cool bath with Aveeno Oatmeal powder is just the thing to help relieve itch.

  1. Apply vinegar soaks to blistering skin.
    Mix a mild vinegar solution made of one tablespoon white vinegar in one-pint cool water, wet a cloth and apply it to the blisters for 10-15 minutes four times a day. This helps draw out the fluid and dry the weeping.
  2. Apply Calamine Lotion.
    You can do this with or without doing the vinegar soaks. This also helps to dry the weeping. I particularly like Calamine with Pramoxine, which is an additional anti-itch medicine that provides relief. Avoid Calamine Lotions with antihistamines (Benedryl, diphenhydramine, etc.) or topical anesthetics ("cains" such as lanocaine and benzocaine) because they can cause an allergic reaction that looks exactly like poison oak/ivy.

  1. Stay cool. Again, cool skin itches less.
  2. Take oral antihistamines (if it's safe for you to do so), like Benadryl, according to directions. It can help to relieve itch.

Again, avoid topical antihistamine and topical anesthetic products with "cains" (lanocaine, benzocaine) because they can cause yet another allergic rash and you won’t know where your poison oak ends and your allergic drug rash starts.

Once your poison oak or ivy rash starts to go away take good care of your skin so it can really heal well.

A rash like poison oak and ivy causes damage to your skin's barrier, and your skin will be sensitive and vulnerable for 2 to 4 weeks at least after it appears normal.

I recommend gentle and hypoallergenic skin care to support healing.

Wash with a hypoallergenic and gentle soap like my Naturally Best Bar Soap. This soap is made with organic plant-based ingredients.

Apply a rich and hypoallergenic moisturizer within 3 minutes after toweling skin dry. My top choice for recently damaged skin is my Natural Face, Hand and Body Lotion. Like my Naturally Best Bar Soap, this healing lotion is made with organic plant-based oils and is ideal for sensitive skin.

For severe reactions, see your doctor for oral cortisone or an injection of it.

Watch the video: Poison Ivy: How to Identify, Prevent u0026 Remove