What is Urushiol? (with pictures)

Urushiol is found in poison ivy, poison oak and sumac.

Urushiol is a type of toxin commonly found in plants. Although organic, this toxin can cause skin irritation. Plants that commonly contain urushiol include poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac. Interestingly, some people get urushiol-induced contact dermatitis due to confusion within the human body.

Urushiol has the ability to trick the human body into believing it is being attacked. As soon as the immune system detects an attack, the T cells that are within the blood release enzymes and toxins. T cells are highly harmful to both good and bad cells. When fluids released by T cells damage nerves, the result is itchy skin.

A man with poison ivy blisters on his hand.

Urushiol can cause itchiness in humans, although it does not affect most animals. Birds, deer, goats, horses and cattle all consume berries from toxic plants without harm. Interestingly, 90% of all adults react negatively to toxic plants. At this time, scientists have not determined why some people are affected by urushiol while others are not.

The part of a toxic plant that usually causes a reaction looks a lot like syrup. In fact, the name urushiol comes from the Japanese word urushi, which refers to a type of lacquer produced in East Asia from the sap of the kiurushi tree. The sap itself is not important for most toxic plants, although it does have an impact on humans.

Deer can eat urushiol harmlessly.

Poison ivy is the only toxic plant that needs its sap to survive. When a poison ivy plant is damaged, the plant releases its sap to help heal the wounds. Unfortunately for those who are allergic to poison ivy, this plant is highly sensitive. A simple brush against the plant will cause it to release its poisonous, sap-like toxins.

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There is a way to tell whether or not a poison ivy plant has been damaged recently. Plants that have released sap will appear shiny, or plant leaves may have small black spots. Poison ivy plants that look shiny or mottled should be avoided. On the other hand, it is entirely possible to come into contact with the toxic sap without ever entering a forested area.

Signs of an allergic reaction can include a runny nose.

Toxic sap can easily be transferred from one person to another. Also, an allergic reaction can occur if a person comes into contact with any item or animal that contains toxic plant oils. Dogs, cats, and even garden tools can contain enough toxin from a plant to cause an allergic reaction. Lastly, the sap of toxic plants can be released into the air if those plants are used to create a fire.

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