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How to Identify Poison Oak; Differences from poison ivy

Many plants are toxic to humans and animals alike, so it’s important to recognize them before it’s too late.

As more people venture outside to enjoy warm weather, knowing how to recognize and avoid poison oak could help avoid a future of headaches and itchy red rashes.

Before this relaxing hike accidentally becomes the bane of your summer, make sure you know where to look and what to look for.

A helpful old adage, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is “leaves of three, drop it.”

But the three hand rule is not hard and fast.

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Poison oak grows in Santa Ynez Canyon in Topanga State Park on May 21, 2008.
Leaves of poison oak appear as summer vegetation in the predominantly chaparral habitat of Southern California July 19, 2007 in the San Gabriel Mountains of California.
Poison oak and ferns grow in Santa Ynez Canyon at Topanga State Park on May 21, 2008 in Los Angeles, California.

Poison oak can have more than three leaves, and plants can vary depending on the season, species, and local environment.

Poison oak, either Pacific or Atlantic, is a native plant of the United States—primarily the Southeast and West Coast—in the form of a three-leaf shrub.

All parts of the plant, including the roots, can cause an allergic reaction year-round, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Atlantic poison oak is found along the east coast from New Jersey to Florida, as well as in several noncoastal states — including Tennessee, Arkansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Illinois — according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Database.

Dried leaves fall beneath the green poison oak while fall colors appear in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Poison oak grows in Santa Ynez Canyon in Topanga State Park on May 21, 2008.

Pacific poison oak can have yellow or green flowers and clusters of green-yellow or white berries. It can grow on shrubs and vines in the Pacific Northwest and California, according to the National Park Service.

Are poison oak and poison ivy the same thing? What is the difference?

Poison oak is often confused with poison ivy, but the two plants are actually a little different.

Leaves of poison oak are more rounded and irregular compared to poison ivy. A poison oak can have up to nine leaves, although three leaves are most common. The plants grow in sun and shade in mixed evergreen woodland, woodland, chaparral and riparian areas.

However, poison ivy always has three leaves, according to WebMD.

Poison ivy, the three-petalled plant, is on display at the Eddy Discovery Center in Chelsea on June 15, 2021.

The CDC recommends that wearing long sleeves, long pants, boots, gloves, and barrier skin cream can limit exposure to poison oak. If you think you may have been exposed to the virus, wash clothing separately in hot water with detergent.

Camille Fine is a hot visual producer on USA TODAY’s NOW team. She loves to bake pizza, take pictures of friends and spoil her affectionate cat, Pearl.

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