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HomeNL-2018-12 Safety Minute

Safety Minute: Poison Plants
December 2018
by Harmon Everett
The last safety minute talked about poison snakes we might meet along the way as we paddle. This Safety Minute is going to focus on poison plants we tend to meet along the way.


The most prolific and most problematic of these is poison ivy. “Leaves of three, let it be” is good advice. However, as it loves growing in underbrush near rivers and water, we tend to have to walk through, or grab it, as we make our way to launch our boats, or leave the river at the take-outs. Poison Oak looks very similar to poison ivy, but with some rounded looking oak leaves mixed in. All of these love wet and marshy ground, such as we would often be traipsing through on our trips to and from our lakes and rivers.

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac looks much like real sumac (brushy, with rows of single leaves along a stem), but whereas Real Sumac has clumps of organized red fuzzy berries that stand upright, (picture), poison sumac has smaller clumps of white or light-colored berries that hang downward – (picture).

REAL SUMAC – NOT Poison Sumac. Actually edible.


Nettles are the most easily remedied. The poisons in nettles are alkaline based, and soaking the affected area in a weak acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice can quickly cure any rash or reaction that develops.

Once you dispose of the little hair-like needles, and the alkaline poison by washing in a weak acid, or cooking, nettles are actually edible, and good food. They are a good source of vitamins A and C and Omega-3 and contain up to 25% protein, and can be used much like spinach. The older leaves develop gritty bits, so the younger leaves are preferred for eating.

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac have an oily poison called urushiol, that sticks to skin and clothes, that seems to be impervious to many cleaning methods, and is unfazed by an acid bath.

It has been reported that if you wash the oil off your skin with LOTS OF COLD WATER, within ten or fifteen minutes, it is possible to minimize the effects, but don’t use hot water (which opens up the pores in your skin and may increase the spread of the oil). The main concept is to get the oil off your skin before it bonds to the skin and does its dirty work. Using soap might help, but might not. Using washcloths or alcohol tend to open up pores in the skin, and actually enhance the poison, as much as help get it off. Also, it tends to spread once it is on your skin, clothes or hands, to everything it touches. Rubbing your eyes is seriously NOT recommended.

One further note, is that poison ivy vines attach to trees and sometimes get burned in campfires by mistake. If that happens the smoke is also full of urushiol oil, and can cause serious or fatal irritation inside your lungs. Inspect any wood you put into your campfire, and if you are at a campfire and start having breathing problems, get medical attention soon.

One video on Youtube suggested thinking about it as very thick black grease. Just a simple wash with soap will not get it off, you have to work at it for an extended time.

Wearing long pants and long sleeved shirts and gloves may prevent it from getting to your skin. Note, however, that if your clothes, gloves, or pets get the urushiol on them, it can easily get transferred to your skin unless you wash it off the clothes or pets before it transfers. Some people have reported that only one wash is necessary to remove it from their clothes, some reports say that they needed multiple washings to get rid of the irritation. I personally had a pair of blue jeans I eventually had to throw out, because the rash returned every time I wore them, even after multiple washings, and multiple soakings with various solvents, and attempts at cleaning.

If you suffer the misfortune of itching and blisters starting on your skin, there are a thousand different remedies listed on the internet, ranging from the traditional Calamine lotion, to bleach and Epsom Salt baths, to medical prescriptions for prednisone, steroids, cortisone injections, Benadryl and Zyrtec. There seems to be a wide range of individual reactions to the urushiol and the different remedies, and multiple reports from people who say they’ve tried everything until they found one remedy that works. Unfortunately, what works for one person doesn’t seem to be the thing that works for someone else. My recommendation is to do as much as you can to avoid getting it on your skin, and if you think you’ve gotten into it, immediately (Immediately! Like, NOW) spend a significant amount of time using cold water to wash it off.

Keep a mental list handy of remedies to try if you do start developing a rash. If you find one that works for you, remember it, and also remember it may not work for someone else. If big blisters start to form, or your eyes and throat start to close, get to an emergency room or a doctor.

The author, Harmon Everett