Anyone who falls victim to poison sumac may think twice before hitting the great outdoors unprotected ever again, because this small tree-like plant packs a punch if handled, setting the skin afire with its toxic urushiol, an oily organic allergen that causes skin irritation when touched and potentially fatal respiratory problems if it is burned and inhaled.
Fortunately, the plant can easily be identified by counting its leaflets: each plant contains from nine to thirteen. It also has a red stem that connects the leaf to the leaflets, which have a shiny look and smooth texture. In fall, the typically green plant turns into colorful shades of orange, red, purple, and yellow. Although it can survive in most conditions, it thrives in bogs, swamps, and standing water throughout the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest regions of the United States.
Once a person’s skin comes in contact with poison sumac, the plant’s oil can penetrate the skin in only a couple of minutes. However, it usually takes one to three days for a rash to appear. Inflammation, redness, and itching are the first symptoms to set in, but it does not take long for blisters to erupt. Blisters and rashes appear wherever the plant touches a person’s skin, and they usually appear in lines or streaks.
Unfortunately, the symptoms do not stop there, because new areas of a person’s skin may be affected days following the initial outbreak. The more the plant’s oil touches the skin, the worse a person’s symptoms will be. In cases of widespread exposure, a person’s face, neck, mouth, and genitals may swell and large clusters of painful blisters may form. If you think you have come into contact with poison sumac after an outing in the wilderness, it is vital that you wash your clothes and your skin as soon as possible.
The best way to avoid this and other dangerous plants is to learn how to identify them and wear long pants, shirts with sleeves, boots, and gloves while trekking through the countryside. A topical cream containing bentoquatam has been noted to be helpful, because it prevents the plant’s oils from penetrating the skin. Most importantly, staying on designated trails whenever possible can greatly increase your chances of avoiding contact with poisonous plants!
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