Poison Ivy: Seven Things You Need To Know Before You Hit the Trail

When I was kid, early on in my scouting career, I made the rookie mistake of wiping my butt with an unidentified leaf. As you can probably guess, given the nature of this post, that was a very bad call. I had an itchy rash in areas I would have preferred to remain itchy rash free, but I learned a valuable lesson; avoid poison ivy at all cost!

Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy, stronger and more prolific than ever.

That isn’t the only thing you should know about poison ivy though, and with the high proliferation of the plant this year, I thought we should review some things you ought to know. So, with that in mind, here are seven things you need to know about poison ivy.

1. Poison Ivy is bigger, badder, and more prolific than ever!

Poison ivy grows well in in heat, and increased carbon dioxide makes the plants grow faster and larger. It also makes the plant produce greater amounts of urushiol, the oil that causes the itchy rash. Worse yet, it makes poison ivy produce more potent urushiol oil, creating more severe allergic reactions. Thanks climate change!

Poison Ivy alongside the trail.In practice, this means that we need to be more alert as we try to avoid making contact with the plant. Remember, if you don’t touch the oil, you won’t get the rash!

2. Poison Ivy affects people differently.

Oddly enough, after my itchy butt experience, I never suffered from poison ivy again. In fact, I discovered in my teen years that the plant had little to no effect on me. My friend Brandon, however, suffered horribly at the slightest touch! One time he tumbled into a patch, and looked like a diseased monster for weeks. Once when we went camping together, he felt so certain that I was lying about my immunity that after I had fallen asleep, he put on work gloves, went outside to collect some poison ivy leaves, and rubbed them on my skin. Certain that he had taught me a lesson, he washed his hands thoroughly and went to bed. The result? I remained unaffected, and his hands ended up covered in an itchy rash.

I don’t mention this simply to mock one of my best friends (though I am mocking you Brandon!) but also to point out that poison ivy doesn’t affect everyone the same way. We all have varying level of sensitivity.

I still avoid poison ivy. It’s possible that I could develop a response to it, which I don’t want, plus I don’t want to track the oil into my house. Because…

3. You can spread urushiol on your clothes and skin.

Anything that comes in contact with the plant can transfer the oil to your skin. So you don’t even have to touch the plant itself. If you touch someone who still has the oil on them, or even pet a dog that has come into contact with the plant, you may end up with that itchy rash.

Interesting fact, poison ivy only effects humans! Animals like your dog are immune, even if they transfer the oil to you! For this reason, clothes that I wear into the woods are usually separated and washed right away when I return home. I wash them separately from all my other clothes, and if I’m feeling overly paranoid I’ll run the washing machine empty before I wash another load.

Poison ivy vine on a tree

Take caution before leaning on any tree!

4. You may be able to prevent an itchy rash, even if you touch poison ivy.

But you’ve got to be quick about it! If you come into contact with poison ivy, or the urushiol oil, you may be able to prevent the rash, or at lessen the severity by washing the oil off of your skin as soon as possible.

You’re going to want to scrub that oil off with a wash cloth, strong soap, and cool water. There are lots of poison ivy soaps on the market, but I actually recommend strong dish soap as it removes oil and grease from your skin remarkably well. Use cool water , as warm or hot water will open your pores, and you don’t want the oil penetrating any deeper into your skin than it already has.

As you scrub, be careful not to spread any urushiol; always wash from the top down!

If you can’t get to a shower right away, do the best you can. If you have hand or baby wipes, scrub as well as you can without spreading the oil.

5. If you do get itchy, you have several options for treatment.

The itchy rash shows up between 12 to 48 hours after exposure, although some people have severe reactions more quickly. Calamine lotion is the “traditional” treatment that I grew up with and saw many of my friends sporting on their arms and legs as a kid. Over the counter cortisone creams or ointments can help, as can oatmeal lotions and baths. Since the rash is essentially an allergic reaction, some people find relief using oral antihistamines.

Another treatment option is using jewelweed, a plant that naturally counters the effect of poison ivy. Testing has shown that it will effectively relieve the itching and speed healing of a poison ivy rash. If, like me, you’re not very good with your plant identification, you could consider using a jewelweed salve like this one from No Reins. Several friends have recommended it after using it to relieve their own itchy poison ivy rashes.

Poison ivy in the grass

Poison ivy, hiding in the grass.

Unfortunately, the only way to completely get rid of the rash is to wait it out. This can take anywhere from a week to a month depending on the severity.

6. Poison Ivy can cause serious, life threatening reactions.

If you get poison ivy in your eyes, your esophagus, or your lungs, you will be in serious trouble. Typically this will occur because you’ve got the oil on your hands and then rub your face, or ingest something you’ve handle. Worse yet, if you burn poison ivy, you can breathe in the oil in the smoke; this will cause a rash on the inside of the mouth, throat, and possibly lungs. Difficulty breathing will follow, and the airways can even swell closed! If you think you may have accidentally breathed in smoke from poison ivy, seek medical attention immediately.

7. Poison ivy is easy to identify.

Luckily, you can easily identify poison ivy once you know what you’re looking for. I’ve sprinkled a number of pictures of the plant in this post so you can familiarize your Just remember these rhymes that I learned in Boy Scouts;

Leaves of three, leave them be.
This is pretty simple; if the plant has more than three leaves, it’s not poison ivy. The three leaves should all emerge from one center point on the stem, which is often reddish in color. The center leaf will have a longer stem than the two on either side.

Identifying poison ivy

Leaves of three, leave them be. Note the three leafed poison ivy in the center of the photo, as well as the five leafed virginia creeper. Virginia creeper is harmless but is sometimes mistaken for poison ivy.

The edge of the leaf can be smooth or jagged (note the difference between the leaves in the center of the photo above, and the smaller, jagged leaves on the bottom right). In the spring when it’s first sprouting, the leaves often appear red around the edges. In the autumn, the entire leaf usually takes on a dark red color as well. Keep that in mind when you’re out and about during the changing of the seasons.

Berries white, take flight.
Poison ivy produces small green berries in a grape-like cluster that quickly turn white. In the fall, when the leaves have already fallen from the plant, you may still encounter the white berries. They may appear shriveled up or dried, and may come to rest atop dried leaves on the forest floor. These will still make you itchy, so avoid them.

Hairy vine, no friend of mine.
The best way to distinguish poison ivy vines in autumn or winter is by looking at the vine. If the vine looks hairy, and it holds onto the tree by use of these hairs, it’s likely poison ivy.

Poison ivy vine

The amount of “hair” on the vine varies. Best to avoid any hairy vines you come across!

Avoid touching it, climbing on it, burning it, or swinging on it like Tarzan. Itchy hands are no fun, and worse yet, you’ll probably touch your face or eyes, which will be no fun!

Don’t let poison ivy stop you from hitting the trail. With these seven points, you’re ready to make your way through the woods confident that you wont find yourself red and itchy the next morning.
Poison ivy growing on a tree
Have you had a bad experience with poison ivy? Share it with us in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “Poison Ivy: Seven Things You Need To Know Before You Hit the Trail

  1. Desiree A Quast

    When I was very young, maybe 8, my dad made the mistake of not properly identifying the poison ivy in the tree branches he burned. I had to be taken to the hospital because I couldn’t breath easily. For a whole month, my mom, dad and myself all had to taken an inhaler, Benadryl, and use creams on our body parts. Even though I never touched it, I had a huge rash on my back from it entering my lungs. Thank goodness it was summer.

    Reply
    1. Wade Post author

      That sounds awful! We tend to think of poison ivy as a nuisance plant, but it really can be quite dangerous,especially because it can be easy to accidentally burn the vines and foliage!

      It sounds like a pretty awful summer, that’s for sure, but I’m glad that it wasn’t worse! I also hope it hasn’t kept you away from campfires since then!

      Reply
  2. Ann Fippinger

    Had a “whole body” experience when pregnant with my 2nd son. Ended up having to take steroids for 10 days to control it. Had gotten within about 10ft of it but not touched it. Dr said that I would always be that allergic. Wrong. My SON is the one who is allergic to poison ivy! I have only had mild cases since and he is unable to get near it.

    Reply
    1. Wade Post author

      Oh my! That sounds awful! You didn’t even touch it!?! Eek! Sorry that your son suffers so badly from it! Hopefully there will be some sort of cure-all in the future! Until then, I hope it’s not slowing him down.

      Reply

Leave a Reply