Poison Ivy Rash How To Avoid It

Dated: 11/02/2017

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Poison Ivy Rash: How to Avoid it For Good

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poison ivy growing on fenceyoung poison ivy plant growing on log pile1of 2

Learning to identify poison ivy should help you avoid the itchy rash.

If you’re one of the few people with no allergic reaction to poison ivy, consider yourself lucky.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 85 percent of Americans are allergic to urushiol, the oil in the poison ivy plant that causes the relentless rash.

Simply brushing poison ivy with exposed skin can cause itchy red streaks, oozing blisters and sleepless nights that can last weeks. The allergic reaction is so strong in some victims that hospitalization is required.

But it doesn’t mean you should spend your days hiding indoors from the three-leafed villain. Learning to identify poison ivy and understanding how the rash spreads should make it easier to avoid a future reaction.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like?

You’ve probably heard the “leaves of three, let it be” mantra, but if that’s all it takes to identify the plant, why do millions of people continue to catch the rash? It doesn’t help that both the color and the shape of the leaf change as the plant ages.

Poison ivy has compound leaves with three leaflets that connect to a single stem. Young poison ivy leaves are light green and have serrated or toothed edges, which some people say look like praying hands. Mature poison ivy is a darker green and tends to have larger, rounded leaves.

It grows as a climbing vine with clinging roots that enable it to scale a tree or building, or prostrate along the ground as a shrub or vine.

a poison ivy plant hiding in a garden

A young poison ivy plant easily blends in with the mint and ivy in this garden. (Photo by Mike LaFollette)

Do I Have Poison Ivy?

“The average time from exposure to when the first symptoms appear is between 12 and 48 hours,” says Dan Boelman, a registered nurse and customer service manager for Zanfel Laboratories, maker of Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash. “Itching is almost always the first sign. If somebody has a rash and it’s not itchy, it’s almost never poison ivy. If you do some yard work and you get a rash 15 minutes later, it’s probably not poison ivy.”

picture of poison ivy rash on arm

The rash may include small bumps, large red patches, oozing blisters and long patches that mimic scratch marks. (Photo courtesy of American Academy of Dermatology)

Boelman says you cannot get the rash from touching another person who has poison ivy. It’s also a myth that repeated scratching spreads the rash.

“The only way you can get poison ivy is through direct contact with the plant, or indirect contact by touching an item that has been contaminated by the plant’s oil,” he says.

Boelman warns that urushiol may remain active on clothing, garden tools and camping gear for up to five years, so it’s important to wash all items that come in contact with poison ivy.

It’s also possible to get poison ivy from breathing smoke from burning plants, which causes a severe, systemic reaction where the rash develops on parts of the body that didn’t come in direct contact with urushiol, Boelman says.

Where Does Poison Ivy Come From?

Have you ever found poison ivy on your property that seemed to appear out of nowhere? According to Umar Mycka, owner of highly rated The Poison Ivy Horticulturist, a Philadelphia-based company that specializes in the education and eradication of poison ivy, there’s a logical explanation.

“You invite birds into your yard because of their brilliant color and to share companionship with them, but they’re also bringing poison ivy into your yard,” he says.

Poison ivy berries growing on plant

Birds love to eat poison ivy berries, and then they spread the seeds through their waste. (Photo by Mike LaFollette)

More than 60 species of birds eat the white poison ivy berries that ripen in early fall and spread the seeds through their waste. Mycka says migrating birds hunt poison ivy berries from the sky and spread the seeds over long distances, while overwinter birds spread seeds locally.

Boelman says the poison ivy season starts in early spring, but it doesn’t kick into high gear until May.

“Peak poison season is from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that’s mainly because school’s out and people are camping and hiking and doing things outside,” he says.

poison ivy growing on a tree

Poison ivy turns red in fall, often before other plants, making it easier to identify. Just don't forget to look up, too. (Photo by Mike LaFollette)

Where Does Poison Ivy Grow?

Mycka says you’ll find poison ivy in areas where birds like to perch. Check around bird feeders, under telephone wires, on wood piles, around trees, bird baths and deck railings. Also look next to the air conditioner because birds are attracted to its movement.

Poison ivy prefers to stay out of the spotlight, so you’re more likely to find it growing in a flower bed than in the middle of the lawn.

“It wants to grow in a place where it gets partial light and partial shade,” Mycka says.

If your home backs up to a forest, look along the boundary where it meets your lawn. It also likes to grow in flood plains, along creeks, around lakes and in areas with disturbed soil. Don’t forget to inspect the garage and trees for climbing poison ivy.

Treating Poison Ivy Rash

Unfortunately, you probably won’t realize you have poison ivy until an outbreak occurs. But if you suspect you touched the plant and take immediate action, it’s possible to prevent a reaction altogether or significantly reduce its severity.

“The first thing you should do is go inside and wash your skin off with cool water and liquid dish soap,” Boelman says. “The plant’s toxic oil starts penetrating the skin within 15 minutes of exposure, but it takes about an hour to completely get into the skin.”

Grease cutters in liquid dish soap remove the urushiol oils, and washing with cold water will keep pores closed and minimize absorption, Boelman says.

For extreme cases, such as a systemic reaction from breathing smoke of a burning plant, doctors often prescribe steroids.

“We try to reserve oral steroids like prednisone unless people get it on their face or genitals, where you can have significant skin swelling and potentially an eye swollen shut,” says Dr. Evan Schiffli of Community Physician Network in Indianapolis. “These pills are continued for a few weeks and the dose slowly decreased. If you stop the steroids too early in poison ivy, you risk an even worse rebound phenomenon.”

How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy

Mycka says regular maintenance is the key to keeping your property poison ivy-free.

“If it’s a seedling, you can just pluck it out with a gloved hand,” he says. “You don’t need to call anyone out to do that. Every year, go through your yard and pluck them out, then you won’t have a problem.”

The real threat comes with age. Undisturbed poison ivy plants can grow to great lengths and consume a building or property. Mature plants develop complex root systems that intertwine with other plants making it difficult to dig them up.

Mycka is often hired to remove mature plants from abandoned properties where they’ve grown uncontested for years, or on homes that were sold during the winter to unsuspecting buyers. To drive the age point home, Mycka says he observed a poison ivy plant in a field study grow 12 inches in the first year, and an additional 22 feet the second year.

Mycka says you can kill a young poison ivy plant with a store-bought herbicide, but he recommends professional help to eradicate mature plants, which requires digging out the roots. He charges $65 an hour per technician and the average job runs between $500 and $1,800.

Mycka says that by the time he gets a call to remove poison ivy from a home, the owner almost always knows where it is.

“People usually find it by touching it, unfortunately,” he says.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article that was originally published on October 21, 2013.  Courtesy of Angies List

Mike Lafollette

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