Oh boy, the topic of this blog article is something I quite possibly hate more than anything on earth…I’m talking about poison ivy…along with its sidekick’s poison oak and poison sumac. Poison ivy is present in every state except for California, Hawaii, and Alaska…which is one of many reasons I’ve enjoyed living on Kodiak Island so much. The state of Missouri, where I’m originally from, along with all the other Midwestern states are loaded with these horrible, rash inducing plants and I’ve spent many weeks of my life in utter torment while itching and scratching all summer long as a result of coming into contact with these terrible, noxious weeds. So, as you can imagine, I’ve learned quite a lot over the years about how to steer clear of these pesky plants as well as how to minimize the suffering when one does come into contact with them.
Poison ivy is technically classified as an allergenic Asian and Eastern North American flowering plant, but it’s most commonly referred to as a weed, due to its very negative effect on humans, as well as its ability to rapidly grow, spread, and overtake other more desirable plants. While poison ivy is not toxic to the point of causing death or serious illness, with some very rare exceptions, but it has a very sticky, long-lasting oil called urushiol that causes an itchy, blistering rash after coming into contact with it. On a more positive note…as much as I hate to admit it…poison ivy isn’t entirely bad or intrinsically evil. Animals such as white-tailed deer, black bear, and other mammals actually eat poison ivy, which apparently is a rather nutritious plant for them, with no ill effects whatsoever. Also, medicines can be made from the leaves to treat a variety of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis.
How Do You Get Poison Ivy?
There are many ways that one can contract the dreaded poison ivy rash, but first and foremost is coming into direct contact with the plant itself by means of outdoor work or recreational activities. Even light, subtle contact with the leaves, stems, roots, or berries can leave the unseen oil behind for it to do its dastardly deed. Other common ways that people get poison ivy are as follows:
- Coming into contact with contaminated objects such as clothing, pets or livestock animals, firewood, gardening tools, etc.
- Prolonged exposure to or inhaling the smoke while trying to dispose of poison ivy by burning it.
It’s also important to note that the oil from poison ivy remains active all year long, even in the middle of winter, which is why it’s quite common to catch it from cutting or carrying in firewood.
Poison Ivy Symptoms
It typically takes around 12 to 48 hours after contact with poison ivy for the rash to show up and it normally lasts two to three weeks. Naturally, the severity of the rash depends on how much oil you get on your skin and how sensitive or allergic you are to it.
The rash includes a wonderful combination of swelling, redness, relentless itching and burning, disgusting yellow goo-oozing blisters, and difficulty breathing if you’ve inhaled the smoke from burning poison ivy.
The poison ivy rash itself isn’t generally contagious, and the nasty blister fluid won’t spread the rash, but you CAN spread the rash further on yourself and transfer it to others if you still have the initial oil from the plant on your fingers, skin, clothes, or other items.
Poison Ivy Identification
The first and best way to avoid getting poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, is to know how to clearly identify it, know where it most commonly grows, and simply avoid it as much as possible.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Leaves of three, let it be.” But this isn’t necessarily the case with all three of these plants. Poison ivy is the only one that always has three leaves, which are typically smooth and slightly notched along the edges. Its leaves are green in the summer, reddish colored in the spring, and orange or yellow in the fall. It also may have clusters of greenish-white berries through the spring and summer, along with yellowish-green flowers. Poison ivy can grow as a vine, or look like a small shrub or tree.
Poison oak looks similar, though it primarily resembles a shrub, however, the leaves may be in groups of three, five, or seven, and they have a textured, hairy surface, which are larger, and are more similar in shape to an oak leaf.
Poison ivy and poison oak are both found in a wide variety of settings, including your typical back yards and gardens, as well as heavily forested areas where they can grow and spread to enormous proportions, sometimes even engulfing gigantic trees.
Poison sumac, on the other hand, has leaves that grow in clusters of seven to thirteen, with one, lone leaf by itself at the end, and it grows primarily only in swampy areas. Poison sumac can look like a small shrub or tree, ranging in size from five to twenty feet tall.
Poison Ivy Prevention
Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s definitely the case with poison ivy. Doing all you can to prevent getting it in the first place will save you weeks of misery. Poison ivy prevention measures are quite similar to those for pesky, biting insects, which I also did a video about recently. Here are some of the most effective means:
- Wear the proper clothing when in poison ivy country, such as pants, long sleeve shirts, gloves, and the proper footwear. In warm or extremely hot weather, pants and long sleeve shirts made from the newer, lightweight, breathable, synthetic fabrics that are on the market these days are a great choice.
- Get rid of it! If poison ivy is taking over your property, either kill it with herbicide or pull it out by the roots (while wearing heavy gloves and being very careful!) and dispose of it properly…which DOES NOT include burning it, as the smoke will put you and others at risk.
- When returning from a day in poison ivy country, wash your clothes and other potentially contaminated gear immediately, and most importantly, wash yourself thoroughly. On a personal note, when I come back in from the poison ivy infested woods, I take a shower with a heavy liquid dishwashing soap such as Dawn. While certainly not the best thing for your skin on a regular basis, dishwashing soaps have a strong degreasing agent which does a great job at completely removing any poison ivy oil. In fact, since I started this regimen many years ago, I’ve never caught poison ivy since.
- If your pet was with you and came into contact with poison ivy, give your furry friend a heavy-duty bath as well while wearing rubber gloves so as not to contaminate yourself or others.
- Use a barrier cream or “poison ivy blocker.” Much like sunscreen, these products will help keep the oil from penetrating into your skin and prevent contamination. However, similar to insect repellant, many of these styles of products can also lose their effectiveness due to coming off from sweat or water.
Poison Ivy Treatment
Brushing against a poison ivy plant can cause a red, itchy rash with swelling, bumps and blisters. Frequently, the rash takes a linear form (as in the top-left corner of the photo) due to the way the plant sweeps across the skin.
For mild cases of poison ivy, you can treat the rash at home with a variety of lotions and anointments such as calamine and cortisone creams. Over the counter antihistamines such as Claritin and Benadryl can also help ease the itching and inflammation. Taking cool showers or baths can also help relieve the itching and swelling. However, if the rash is wide-spread and lasts longer than two to three weeks, or, you’re experiencing severe swelling, oozing blisters, a fever, or breathing complications, then you’ll most likely need to see a doctor and remedy the situation with prescription medication.
So there you have it. I hope this information was helpful in educating you about some ways to prevent and treat the dreaded poison ivy rash. If you’d like to see more, check out the video below…