CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The official start of summer is nearing, which means more West Virginians will head outdoors to go hiking and camping. The Mountain State is known for its natural beauty, and while it’s worth experiencing for yourself, there are some hazards to stay aware of while doing so. One of those is poison plants: Poison oak, poison ivy and poison sumac.

All three grow somewhere in West Virginia, but they are not all found throughout the state. Learning how to identify poison plants can save you a lot of discomfort because contact with urushiol oil from poison plants causes itching followed by a red rash and blisters.

Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

Toxicodendron radicans (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons).

What it looks like: It can grow as a ground vine, or a climbing vine, and can even look like a shrub. Poison ivy will always have leaves in groups of three, never more. As it grows, the smaller branches that contain clusters of leaves grow to the left and then to the right, so as a result, they will never be directly across from each other. Poison ivy never has thorns and never has saw-toothed or evenly scalloped edges on its leaves. Its leaves will change colors in the fall. It may have flowers that are a green-tinged white color or berries that are a yellow-tinged white color.

Where to watch out: Poison ivy grows all over West Virginia, and all over all of the states directly bordering West Virginia, according to poison-ivy.org so keep an eye out for it whenever you go on outdoor excursions.

Atlantic Poison Oak (Toxicodendron pubescens)

Toxicodendron pubescens (USDA image).

What it looks like: It may grow as a ground vine or a small shrub. Like poison ivy, poison oak only has leaves in groups of three. The smaller branches that grow off of the main stem of the plant never grow directly across from one another. Poison oak also never has thorns or edges that are saw-toothed or evenly scalloped. Its leaves will change colors in the fall. According to the experts at poison-ivy.org, the best way to distinguish Atlantic poison oak from eastern poison ivy is by looking at the berries. If they’re fuzzy, it’s poison oak.

Where to watch out: According to poison-ivy.org, poison oak grows mostly in dryer, sandier areas. If you’re going to run into it in West Virginia, it will likely be in the Eastern Panhandle area or along the Virginia-West Virginia and Maryland-West Virginia borders, including parts of the Monongahela National Forest. Accordingly, if you’re going to Virginia or Maryland, you’ll want to watch out for it there.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)

Toxicodendron vernix (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons).

What it looks like: Poison sumac plants grow like small trees in wet, muddy soil. Its stems are red. The leaves grow in clusters of seven to 13 according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and tend to have smooth edges. The leaves are orange in spring, green in summer, and yellow, orange, or red in fall. The plant may have yellow-green flowers or green-tinged white berries that hang in loose clusters.

Where to watch out: According to poison-ivy.org, poison sumac usually grows in wetland habitats. If you run into it in West Virginia, it will be in the Eastern Panhandle, right along the Maryland-West Virginia border or along the northeastern part of the Virginia-West Virginia border.

What Should I Do if I Come Into Contact With Poison Plants?

Since it’s the same substance, urushiol oil, that causes the rash, the symptoms will be the same regardless of which type of poison plant you encounter.

The FDA suggests thoroughly washing your skin in soap and cool water as soon as possible after exposure, as well as any surface that may have come into contact with the plant using water or rubbing alcohol. The oil can linger, sometimes for years, on almost any surface. Make sure and clean under your fingernails to avoid re-exposure.

It could take a few hours to several days for symptoms of poison oak, poison ivy or poison sumac to emerge. Sometimes, the oil will not absorb at the same rate, so it may appear as if it’s “spreading”, but the FDA says it’s not possible for scratching or bursting blisters to cause the rash to spread.

The FDA suggests going to a doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • A temperature above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Pus, soft yellow scabs or is tender because these are signs the rash could be infected.
  • Itching that is getting worse or is keeping you up at night.
  • The rash spreads to your eyes, mouth, genital area, or covers more than one-fourth of your skin.
  • A rash that doesn’t improve within a few weeks.
  • Difficulty breathing.

Avoid scratching the blisters so that they don’t become infected. Wet compresses or cold water soaks, as well as over-the-counter remedies can help relieve the itch.

The rash itself is not contagious, so you don’t need to worry about spreading it to others as long as any surface that came into contact with the plant oil has been thoroughly cleaned.