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This unassuming plant can cause gardeners a lot of pain. Here’s how to identify poison ivy plants, prevent further exposure when you’re outdoors, and tips for treating poison ivy rash.
My dad has strong allergic reactions to poison ivy. So whenever he comes over to help me in the yard, like when we got rid of a the English ivy a couple of years ago, he reminds me to keep an eye out for anything that could potentially be dangerous to expose myself to. Which, well… happens a lot when you can’t do all of the projects at once and the yard takes on a life of its own.
Having never experienced a poison ivy rash before myself, I’ll admit that I’m not much of an expert on the subject… but his frequent reminders have taught me a few things that I thought would be helpful to pass on to you this week while I’m still in “finish-the-kitchen” mode (Little bit o’ trivia: most of these pictures were taken before the trees came down, so this post has been in my Draft mode for a while!).
In short: these are the basics of how to identify poison ivy, prevent exposure, and treatments for ivy rash. Enjoy!
What to wear
I would say this in general for yard work (um, for the sake of not having insects fall down your shirt), but the best way to protect your skin from poison ivy is to wear protective clothing. Long sleeves, long pants (or jeans), sneakers, and a hat are all good ideas. The Georgia heat fights me on this, so I don’t always cover up completely, but you get the idea.
Where to look
Poison ivy can grow pretty much anywhere, both in vine form and shrub (or in my neglected yard’s case, giant shrubs). It likes to hang out where it’s protected, such as along the edge of a forest or field or in a sunny area. The one Dad and I identified was exactly in this type of spot in my yard.
Poison ivy is typically a grouping of three leaves — the one on the end usually has a stem; the other two leaves do not. Some vines are hairy or appear to have a thick coating of fur, but you can usually spot them when they snake up trees.
The basic shape of the leaf also tends to look like a folded up glove, where there’s a nub-like shape on one side (as if it’s a thumb and fingers pulled tightly together). Dad even makes the motion as he points to them. Every time.
Rhymes to Remember How to Identify Poison Ivy
Identifying poison ivy seems to be a rhyming game for most gardeners. Dad was an Eagle Scout, so he used this one: “Leaves of three, let them be.” This is often loosely interpreted since Dad will pretty much avoid anything that looks anywhere close to three leaves or a vine that could be poisonous (can’t say I blame him; if you were as allergic as he was, you’d be cautious too).
Other rhymes are also often used, so I’ve listed a few easy-to-remember ones below (and added my own personal grading scale for how much of a dork I feel like saying these):
- “One, two, three. Don’t touch me.” A- (Meh, it’s silly, but not so bad)
- “Leaves like mittens, will itch like the dickens.” D (“Dickens?” Probably only okay to say if you’re Colonel Sanders.)
- “Hairy vine, no friend of mine.” B+ (Ok, yeah – something hairy and growing in my yard should raise an eyebrow or two.)
- “Ragged rope, don’t be a dope.” D (Using the word “dope” in a sentence just makes me think I’m stuck in a Saved by the Bell episode.)
- “Longer middle stem, stay away from them.” C (Simply because this is probably the one you’d forget the most often… “dope” may be dumb, but recall is important.)
Prevention Tips to Ward off the Itch
In addition to wearing protective clothing, there are a number of other things you can know and do to help prevent these irritating vines from growing in your yard, getting in your house, and generally f*cking your day up:
1. Treat yo’self (and your tools). Poison ivy rash is not contagious. But urushiol oil (the component in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac that causes the reaction) can stay on anything you touch for weeks, which could re-expose you and trigger the rash over and over. Wash your garden tools (and everything else that might come into contact with poison ivy) regularly.
2. Act like the floor is made of lava. After working in the yard, as soon as you walk into the house, make a beeline for the laundry room and strip down to your skivvies. Put any clothes that may have come into contact with poison ivy directly into the wash. Then, march up to your shower and scrub down with soap. You want to get that oily resin off as soon as possible (even from under your fingernails), before you touch anything.
3. Fido gets a bath, too. Wash your pets (and their toys) if you think they’ve been exposed. Most pets don’t react to the oil, but it could still be on them. If you then pet them or they rub up against you, you could be in for an unexpected rash later.
Treatment Tips for Your Yard
Even the stem of the poison ivy plant can cause a rash. Cutting them or ripping them out puts the oil on your tools and gloves, which can then get on your skin. So the most common recommended way to treat these plants when you find them is just to put brush killer on them, let them die, and then clear them out once the spray has had a chance to do its thing.
UPDATE: A number of readers also added this tip: DO NOT BURN IT. All that does is create a smoke that will still put it all over your skin, clothes and hair, but it will be inside your lungs, nostrils, etc. Yikes.
Treatment Tips for You
If you’ve been exposed to these itch monsters, it may take a few hours for the oil to start itching or for the rash bumps to appear. But as much as you might be tempted, the advice is the same as with chicken pox: don’t scratch.
Cool compresses may help the itching subside (Dad says he prefers a scalding hot shower, but that sounds like it would itch more to me). Oatmeal baths. Calamine lotion or a steroid cream (like hydrocortisone cream) may also help relieve itching as well as over-the-counter oral antihistamines (like Zyrtec or Benadryl). If it gets really itchy or blisters, head to a drug store clinic like Walgreens. Tell them you’ve been exposed and ask for an oral steroid or shot. There’s a chance they’ll be hesitant to do this (according to an unnamed source, wink wink)… so, I’m not saying to lie that you’re allergic… but you might have to be resourceful if your skin is extra sensitive.
If it Gets Really Bad (As in, Oh Man, I Shouldn’t Have Touched That)
Consult a doctor if you did something that made it worse, like rub your eyes or go to the bathroom and didn’t realize you had the oil on your hands. Ouch. It may be Mother Nature, but she’s a moody broad and will sometimes try to kill you with poison (it’s in the damn name, after all, so it’s not like she’s really hiding it). So if you start to spike a high fever or the rash turns nasty (like oozing, yuck), you may need a doc.
Also, not everyone is sensitive to the oil. The consensus seems to be that you have an 85% chance of developing an allergy to the plant resin. I am happy to report that I didn’t have get symptoms from poison ivy the entire time I’ve worked in my yard (knock on wood), but that doesn’t mean squat. It could be that I’m one of the special 15% (unlikely, considering my dad’s sensitivity), or it could be because I heeded Dad’s friendly advice and headed right for the shower when the yard work ended. I’m not eager to get a rash anytime soon, so I’ll leave the exposure experiment for another day.
Got any of your own prevention or treatment tips? Maybe an awful (but funny for the rest of us) story about accidentally touching your nether regions with poison ivy? Come on, I know someone has to have done it. Hope these tips helped!