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The Poison Oak Dilemma: How to Safely Deal with This Unwelcome Garden Guest

The Poison Oak Dilemma: How to Safely Deal with This Unwelcome Garden Guest

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Most people know what a poison ivy plant looks like so if you spot a weed growing in your garden that resembles one, you may have to look a little further.

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are all part of the cashew family. That’s good news. The even better news is they are not really poisonous but they can definitely leave you with an extremely itchy and uncomfortable rash.

What Does A Poison Oak Plant Look Like?

Similar to the leaves of a poison ivy plant, poison oak has three leaves that grow in a triangular shape. The main leaf is at the top and there are two leaves below it that grow on each side.

Most of the leaves that grow from the stem appear in groups of three, but poison oak can have anywhere from five to seven leaves in a grouping.

The leaves appear to be poison ivy at first but they take on the appearance of an oak tree. While ivy leaves are shiny and green, poison oak leaves have fibrous hairs on the side that gets direct sunlight.

How Did Poison Oak Plants Arrive in Your Garden?

While poison oak grows primarily in wooded areas, you don’t have to live near one to find a plant growing in your yard. Every year in the spring small flowers grow on the poison oak plant that are a mix of green and yellow.

Between May and July, the flowers bloom as well as some lighter colored berries. The berries continue to appear almost until early winter.

It is the disbursement of the berries that spread the growth of poison oak plants. There are more than 50 different kinds of birds and other animals that enjoy the berries of these poisonous plants.

They are easily spread a great distance from where the original plant is located.

How Do You Get Rid of Poison Oak Plants?

If you find poison oak plants in your yard or garden, you should get rid of them right away. Make sure that you cover as much of your exposed skin as possible to avoid contact with the plant. 

Wear long pants and a shirt that is long-sleeved. Also, take extra precautions by wearing heavy work gloves so you can protect your hands.

There are several ways you can remove poison oak plants, the first being to dig them up by the roots. Put the plants in plastic bags to dispose of them.

You can also kill them first by covering the area with a large tarp, especially in the winter months when the ground is too hard to dig up. This will suffocate the plants and they can be dug up and thrown away at a later time.

Another way you can get rid of poison oak plants is by using herbicides. There are several on the market that are effective in killing the plants so you can move them off your property safely.

The herbicides will have directions on them as to how and where to spray them to begin their demise but just make sure you do not try to begin this process if it is windy outside.

What Happens If You Come in Contact with Poison Oak?

If you come in direct contact with a poison oak plant you will end up with an itchy red rash to show for it.

All of the leaves in the poison plants are made up of a resin that is oily known as urushiol. It can also be found in the roots and stems of the plants and most people experience an allergic reaction.

The rash will show up directly on the area where your skin came in contact with the plant.

At first, you will notice that your skin is starting to itch. The area becomes irritated and it keeps getting worse until you have a full out rash. The area will get worse before it gets better, eventually ending up in blisters.

While it won’t last forever, even though it may feel like it at the time, you will begin to experience relief within 3 to 4 weeks.

The rash is definitely an uncomfortable condition but it rarely requires medical attention. The only times you may want to see a doctor is if your allergic reaction is spread all over your body or it is not diminishing in a timely manner.

You should also have it checked out if your blisters are discharging pus or your rash has reached your genital area, mouth, or eyes.

How Do You Treat a Poison Oak Rash?

There are several ways you can treat a poison oak rash, the first being over-the-counter ointments and skin creams that are made specifically to reduce the discomfort of itchy skin. One product that does work well is Calamine lotion.

Some people have found relief by soaking in a bathtub filled with a bath product that contains oatmeal. Mixed into cool water, you will feel instant relief.

Cold compresses will also reduce discomfort.  You can apply them to the rash area for up to 30 minutes a couple of times each day.

Topical lotions you can find at the drugstore that contain aluminum acetate will also ease the itchiness.

The most important thing to remember is not to start scratching. Once you do you won’t be able to stop and it will just become even more inflamed and agitated.

How You Can Avoid a Rash from Poison Oak

Even if you are at the blister stage, a poison oak rash is not contagious. You can only get the reaction if you come in direct contact with the oil from the plant.

Once you find that you have touched the oil, wash your hands, as well as the area that was affected.

Get rid of the plants that have made their way into your yard. If you frequent an area away from your home that is populated with poison oak plants, simply stay away from them.

If you know you have had direct contact with the plant, besides washing your hands thoroughly, put all of your clothing in the washer as soon as you get home.

Give your pet a bath if they were exposed to the plant. Even though they won’t get a rash, the oils could be on the surface of their fur and can be transmitted to you when you pet them.

Where Do Most Poison Oak Plants Grow?

There are actually two different names for poison oak plants based on the areas they populate.

  • Pacific Poison Oak – Also known as western poison oak, the plant appears more as a shrub or vine as it populates most of California as well as Oregon, Nevada, British Columbia, and Washington. An area in Los Angeles was found to be a former village known as “poison oak place.”
  • Atlantic Poison Oak – This type of poison oak can be found mostly in the Southeastern United States including Texas, Oklahoma, and Virginia. A large population has also been located in New Jersey. The plant shows up as small shrubs and ground vines in these areas.

Even if you don’t live in either of these locations, you could still find poison oak plants where you live. Other than providing food and shelter for small animals when it grows in densely wooded areas, poison oak would not add any positive effects to your own landscape so it would be best to remove the plant as quickly as possible.

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Ann Taylor Schwing

Tuesday 17th of October 2023

I've found a solution to most poison oak contacts. Teknu is available in larger pharmacies, and it works well but dries out or is rubbed off too quickly. If I slather Teknu on the affected arm or leg, then wrap it snugly with plastic wrap. The next morning, the affected area will be red, but the itch is gone. The same approach can be used for the neck, and a patch of plastic wrap can be placed over a portion of the face. The key is to keep the affected area moist long enough for the Teknu to draw the poison out.

Lisa Bridenstine

Thursday 2nd of November 2023

That's great! I'm glad you found something that helps.

Happy Planting! Lisa


Monday 26th of August 2019

THANK YOU!! My yard and woods have been ATTACKED by poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac this year terribly!! And yes I have been burned by all three of them four times already and now I have to call for a appointment because three spots will not heal right and are extremely painful! Every year is is something new to tackle!

Lisa | The Practical Planter

Tuesday 27th of August 2019

Hi, Dawn!

Oh, no!! I'm so sorry to hear that. Poison oak, sumac, and ivy can be absolutely terrible. I hope those spots heal up for you quick, and I hope I was helpful! Good luck!