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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.

Thankful it doesn’t look like this anymore!

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!

how to identify poison ivy and treatment tips

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 poxdon’t scratch.

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!

how to identify poison ivy and treatment tips

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  1. When I was in camp they taught us to wash everything (and ourselves) with dish detergent if we thought we had been exposed as it can cut through the grease on the plant that causes the reaction

  2. As a kid, I lived in the woods, climbing trees, etc. I never was allergic to poison ivy, sumac or oak. After becoming an adult, I occasionally got it every once in a while. Now, I get it every year at least once thru the summer. But I live in southern Louisiana and there is no way I can wear jeans or long sleeves in the summer. The one time I did, not only did I think I was going to pass out from the heat, I got the worse case I have ever had in my life.

  3. My very best friend is an avid runner. apparently and I say apparently because I am in no way shape or form a runner. Apparently when people run for long distances mother nature occasionally calls on them. Since we live in a farely rural area she generally runs into the woods to do what she needs to do. On this particular day she couldn’t find any lambs ear plant which is a non poisonous soft plant…. So she reached up and grabbed some leaves.
    She called me the next day freaking out that her nether area was covered in an awful rash and burning like fire.
    I told her to head to urgent care because it didn’t sound so good. She didn’t want to go due to embarrassment and put if off for an entire day before ending up in the emergency room. She had so strip down and show the adorable young male resident the rash. She honestly didn’t know it was poison ivy because she had no clue that it grew in a vine. She had assumed that it only grew down on the ground.
    And that my friends is how my friend ended up with poison ivy from her who-ha to her butt.

  4. Two tips from a highly, highly allergic reader. 1) Plain soap and water isn’t enough to remove the oils. I use the scrubby side of a sponge, like for pots, with dish detergent to wash any areas that might have been exposed. 2) Scalding hot water is the best itch relief I’ve ever found. The hotter the better. It feels horrible and intensely itchy under the heat but then afterwards the relief lasts a long time. Hope you never get poison ivy!

  5. Great article, hopefully it will help someone! My daughter and I are highly allergic to poison ivy as well. We will go to the Dr. pretty immediately for a cortisone shot, which will significantly help. We also use a product called Tecnu, you may want to mention it to your dad, it does a great job of breaking down the oils and drying up the rash.

  6. As a child, I was super allergic to poison ivy, but forgot about it last summer when helping with brush clearing in my mother in laws yard. I didn’t even look for it, didn’t even THINK about looking for it, and apparently was ripping it out with my gloved hands (but bare arms and legs.) I did shower after, but just because I was sweaty and dirty. Fast forward a week and I was off work the whole week and my skin looked like a burn victims-hard and leathery, I couldn’t sleep, it itched and BURNED all the time. I was exhausted, in so much pain-have never been more miserable in my life. It took 2 trips to the doctor and countless anti itch creams. NOTHING helped but time. I cried…a lot.
    I avoid anything with 3 leaves like the plague now and anytime I think I may have been exposed I take a shower with dish soap (cuts the oil) and scrub from head to toe like a crazy person. Poison ivy paranoia to the max-that stuff is awful!!

    Thanks for the tips, I would never wish my poison ivy experience on my worst enemy!

    1. Oh, forgot to mention that the rash was over my entire forearms, up my shoulders, on both legs, my FACE, butt (how did that even happen?!) stomach…EVERYWHERE. I wanted to die and looked awful!

  7. Poison Ivy is the actual worst. THE WORST. It’s as hideous as it is painful. I agree that hot showers are a good way to relieve the itch, but only if you can stand the first 10 seconds or so of agonizing intensity. Hot water makes the itch 9000x worse for 10 seconds, and then it subsides and you get a few hours of relief. And I agree that the only real cure is time. I got the cortisone shot, and still ended up with a solid 5 weeks of massive itching & blisters & an eczema breakout because my body hated the poison ivy so much.
    Oh, and fun fact: Your body’s reaction to the oils can change over time. You can suddenly react to them when you never have before, and vice versa. Fun, right? Nature is amazing!

  8. Please warn your readers to check brush before wading in with a weed whacker. My brother didn’t and got poison ivy everywhere!

    When my dad was young, someone told him it would make him immune to eat poison ivy. Fortunately, he really doesn’t react, but that could have been bad when he ate a bunch of poison ivy!

    Thanks for the tips.

  9. I am highly allergic to poison ivy. When I come inside, I wash any exposed skin area with Dawn dish washing liquid. I ALWAYS have a bottle of Ban roll on in my house and should a rash start up, I put the Ban on it and it stops the itching. One good thing Ban is that if you have kids in school they can put it on themselves and don’t need a note from their doctor. Our cats are strictly house cats and we never let the dogs go near it. Hope this helps.

  10. I literally just got done yesterday ripping out tons of vines of all types which I found out the hard way all were different types of poisons. I have poison ivy, black spotted poison oak and some other bubbly looking itch… really wish I had read this post before I went out there!

  11. Sarah,

    Seems like no two folks have the same sensitivity to these plants. I used to chase snakes in the woods with my friends in the summer and some of them would be covered with itchy spots a few days later and I never was–even wearing shorts. We were more worried about chiggers, but those things don’t live in deep woods. Maybe ticks is what we should have worried about, or maybe stupid friends like one that threw a big rock up at a hornet’s nest without bothering to warn the rest of us.

    I suppose if you don’t have protective gear and decide later that you may have been exposed, the best thing to do is take a long, hot shower and scrub, scrub, scrub. Then hope for the best.

    BTW, your site is great. I am reading up on your tips for refurbishing kitchen cabinets.

    Ol’ Granddaddy

  12. One summer when my cousin was in her teens, her mother cleaned the yard and threw it all in the burn barrel. They were all a mess! Not only their skin, but their lungs as well from the smoke exposure

    I ended up with a systemic case of of poison ivy once and was put on prednisone which basically seemed to let it run its course without the itch. Still miserable time!

    I now treat all vines even if I don’t recognize them with Poison Ivy &Tough Brush Killer. No leaves of 3 in my yard unless it’s something I planted!

  13. So my dad is HIGHLY allergic, and taught my sister and I how to spot poison ivy when we were little kids. We were in elementary school ( 5th grade) I thought i came up with the BEST idea to get out of school for a few days… just rub some poison ivy on your hands itch for a a couple days and boom…. no school. Yea, well my sister has no reaction to poison ivy so she was A OKAY,and in school the next day! I am the opposite, and am apparently HIGHLY allergic to the stuff, so thought in deed did get out of school….I spent the next 2 weeks in and out of the doc with poison ivy up and down my entire body, and covered in blisters. Learned my lesson there, and i follow all the AVOID poison ivy rules!! Not one of my brightest ideas….

  14. I just wanted to add a word of warning – I heard this on the radio one day during a discussion of poison ivy’s allergic properties and what not to do when trying to rid yourself of it. DO NOT BURN IT. Apparently the allergen is present in the smoke and you can inhale it and get the rash in your mouth and lungs. Yikes.

    I’ve never had a rash from poison ivy in my life – I don’t know whether I’m not particularly sensitive or just never came in contact (although with all the traipsing around in the bush I did as a kid I can’t imagine that I didn’t).

    1. YES. Very good tip. I’ve heard that burning it is a very big problem. I’ll update the post with that info too, thanks!

  15. I’m a smart person with a major mental block when it comes to poison ivy. You’re showing me PHOTOS of the stuff and it still looks like every plant on the floor of the woods when I hike with my dogs. (Just occurring to me: Maybe every plant on the floor of our local woods IS poison ivy….)

  16. The old rhyme goes, leaves of three, let it be. After 6 children and many cases of poison ivy, I’ve found the best treatment after exposure is dish soap on the exposed area, and wash well with TEPID water, as soon as possible. I’ve read the oil can last up to two years on gardening equipment. Burning poison ivy can be deadly, farmers burning brush in the area can contaminate laundry drying on a clothesline. Best Dr. Prescribed perscription is Lidex, although it is a steroid it usually clears rash within 2 days. Hope this info helps someone.

  17. Ugh, poison ivy is the bane of my existence and I am fighting a constant battle against it! I live in the Texas hill country on 7 ish acres and had no idea I even had it until I was picking up leaves and saw this huge vine (as big as my wrist) snaking up the oak tree in my back yard. I never knew what it looked like, but for some reason the leaves made me pause and go look it up. I found out that I have miles and miles of the stuff on my property! I don’t know if I’m allergic (thank goodness!) but I found out some interesting stuff in my google searches – apparently humans are the only animals adversely affected by PI, and lots of animals love it (no wonder the horses were always reaching up into the trees eating off of the vines!) The main ingredient in the brush killer is Triclopyr and you can buy a much stronger solution of it by the gallon on Amazon and make your own solutions – it’s pricey, but you save a lot of money in the long run. It also kills other unwanted brush, and if handled with reasonable care it won’t kill grass or desirable trees/shrubs. I also purchased a few Tyvek head to toe suits to wear while pulling down the huge vines – they cost under $10 and can be worn several times and thrown away. I’m sure I looked hilarious, but I wasn’t covered in a rash later either! I also love your blog – I don’t comment much, but love seeing what you’re up to and your sense of humor :-)

    1. That’s a LOT of helpful info Patty, thank you for sharing! I know that goats really like poison ivy (and in fact, I was looking into RENTING goats for a week to have them eat my backyard!). So glad you enjoy the site and commented… I love hearing from readers about the projects they like most.

  18. I’ve heard fels naptha bar soap & dawn dish soap help remove the oils. Maybe with a little baking soda grit?

    1. Now that you mention it, that sounds familiar! Thanks for adding the comment. I’ll look into that and add it to the post if I find that works!