Learn To Identify Poison Ivy And How To Relieve The Itching

by AngelaJohnson

If you've ever been exposed to the poison ivy plant, you know how intense the itching is and how hard it is to get relief.

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), grows in much of the United States and Canada, but is rarely found in Europe.

Poison ivy contains an oily substance called "urushiol" which causes an itchy rash on humans. Don't touch any part of the plant with bare skin.

There's an old saying "Leaves of three, leave it be." Poison ivy has a compound leaf with three leaflets. The middle leaf is symmetrical and on a longer stem. The two sides are mirror images of each other, but they are not symmetrical.

When leaflets first appear early in the spring they most often have a shiny, reddish-green color. During the summer the leaves turn various shades of green. In the fall leaves turn yellow, orange and red, and then finally brown.

The plant has small yellowish flowers from May to July and white berries which mature from August to November. Seeds are spread mainly by animals, and passing through the digestive tract of birds and the vines spread from rhizomes (shallow underground roots growing horizontally).

The oil urushiol is potent all year. You can also get a rash from poison ivy in the fall and winter when there are no leaves, and from dead plants. Poison ivy vines cling to trees, posts, or poles and have hairy tendrils.

Urushiol oil can remain active for a year or more on dead vines and leaves, and also on tools, clothing, gloves, boots, shoes, etc., that have come in contact with the plant.

Does Poison Ivy Affect Animals?

dog in woods

Birds and rodents safely eat the berries from poison ivy, but they're poisonous to humans.

And horses, cows, pigs, goats, deer, rabbits and other animals can eat the plant leaves and stems with no ill effects.

Poison ivy plants do create cover for small wild animals and birds,and because it thrives in disturbed habitats, it can help prevent erosion.

So if poison ivy is growing where you or other people could be exposed, it's a good idea to get rid of it.  But if it's growing in a wild area where humans rarely venture, you may want to leave it alone to provide for wildlife. 


The oils from the plant do not cause any rash or discomfort to animals' skin, but if you pet your dog's fur when he's brushed against a plant, the oils will transfer to YOU. So if your dog joins you outdoors and you think he may have been exposed to poison ivy, hose him down with water to remove the oil. 

photo from pixabay 


Have You Ever Had a Rash From Poison Ivy?

Poison Ivy Identification Tips

The Poison in Poison Ivy

poison ivy leaves in autumnPoison ivy produces a clear and sticky oil called urushiol, (pronounced oo-roo-shee-ohl). Urushiol is highly potent and found in every part of the poison ivy plant throughout the year. The oil can remain active on dead and dried plants for more than a year.

People don't all have the same reactions to urushiol and reactions to it can change over the years.

Depending on your body's sensitivity, symptoms often appear within 12 hours and as long as 48 hours later. Symptoms include itching, inflammation, and blisters on the skin.

*** You cannot get a poison ivy rash from someone else's rash or blisters. ***

The liquid inside blisters is not urushiol, but fluids your body has produced. Still, you shouldn't break the blisters because it could prevent healing and lead to infection or scarring.

Urushiol can remain potent on objects for a long time.

You can come in contact with urushiol from unwashed clothes (especially shoes, laces, and gloves), sporting or gardening equipment, pets' fur, etc. Anything that comes in contact with the plant can carry active sap.

Be sure to wash everything you may have touched or you may end up constantly re-exposing yourself!

There's no time to waste if you know you've been exposed. 

If possible, stay outdoors until you cleanse exposed skin with generous amounts of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. (Don't return to the woods or yard the same day. Alcohol removes your skin's protection along with the urushiol and any new contact will cause the urushiol to penetrate twice as fast.)

Next, wash skin with water. (Water temperature does not matter).

Then you can go inside to take a regular shower with soap and warm water. Do not use soap before this point because soap will tend to pick up some of the urushiol from the surface of the skin and move it around.

poison ivy leaves in autumn on wikipedia commons 

Poison Ivy Rash and Itching

Poison ivy on a road bank, on Ohio State Route 278 in the Zaleski State Forest, Vinton County, OhioI'm not going to show an image of poison ivy rash because it looks awful; and yes, I've had the rash several times.  You can view images of the rash here

Urushiol is the oily substance from poison ivy that causes the rash. The rash will only appear where urushiol has touched the skin. You might think your rash is spreading, but it might be because the urushiol is absorbed at different rates in different parts of the body, or you may be repeatedly exposed to contaminated objects like clothing or tools.

Oozing blisters are not contagious because they don't contain urushiol. The fluid won't cause the rash on the your body, either. If you scratch the blisters with your fingernails, you might cause an infection due to germs under your nails, though.

The rash, blisters and itch normally disappear in 14 to 20 days without any treatment. But you usually need relief from the itching.  

To Relieve Itching:

Antihistamines are available as a cream or lotion, or you can take them orally. The oral forms are usually more effective but can cause drowsiness. 

Menthol, benzocaine, and pramoxine are topical anesthetics to "numb" your itchy rash. You have to apply them often.

Wet, cool compresses or soaking your skin in cool water often help. Cool bath soaks in baking soda or commercial oatmeal for 15-30 minutes can relieve itching for several hours.

Drying agents like calamine or other lotions are very soothing and speed healing of the rash.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) considers over-the-counter topical corticosteroids (commonly called hydrocortisones)  safe and effective for temporary relief from itching.

To Treat the Rash:

Some over-the-counter products with these ingredients usually help: 

  • aluminum acetate (Burrows solution)
  • baking soda
  • Aveeno (oatmeal bath)
  • aluminum hydroxide gel
  • calamine
  • kaolin
  • zinc acetate
  • zinc carbonate
  • zinc oxide

When to see your doctor:

If you have poison ivy on your face or genitals. The skin in these areas is easily damaged and scarred, with possible swelling.

Poison ivy on large areas of your skin; more than ten percent of the body's surface, or about the size of the entire front abdomen.

Pain and tenderness, and growing redness around the rash. Transparent fluid is not a sign of infection; blisters are common with poison ivy contact.

Extreme itching that can't be soothed with using over the counter treatments.

photo of poison ivy growing alongside a road from wikipedia


Home Remedies to Treat Poison Ivy Rash and Itching

poison ivy leaves

  • Honey, Baking Soda, Oatmeal Paste
  • Vinegar, Banana Peel, Miracle Whip
  • Butter Milk, Pectin and Orange Juice
  • Cucumber, Maple Syrup, Salt, Saran Wrap


  • Vitamin C, Noxema Skin Pads, Rubbing Alcohol
  • Anti perspirant, Baking Soda + Gold Bond Medication
  • Hair Dryer, Gewvol Mint Foot Cream, Pine Tar Soap
  • Retin A, Tinactin, Iodine, Monistat 7, Pepcid AC
  • Epsom Salt, Balm, Bactine, Domeboro
  • Foot Powder, Milk of Magnesia, Maalox
  • Vitamin E Cream, Hair Spray, Glycerin and Rubbing Alcohol
  • Hydrogen Peroxide, Preparation H

For information on how these items are used, click on the following links. As with all remedies and medicines, what may work for one person may not work for another.

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Killing Poison Ivy

poison ivy leaves in autumnNEVER BURN POISON IVY. Breathing the smoke will injure your lungs. You shouldn't even expose your skin to the smoke.

To get rid of poison ivy, you must remove it completely, including the roots.

This is a photo of poison ivy in autumn.



There are several chemicals available that will kill poison ivy. Check with your local lawn and garden store to see what they recommend. Poison ivy is a woody stem plant and normal weed killer will only make the leaves drop off but not kill the stem and roots. Protecting your body from the plant, cut the stalk and apply herbicide to the stump.

If you use a ground sterilizer, note that it kills every plant it touches and may keep anything growing in that area for years.

NOTE:  If you use herbicides, the ivy must still be removed because the urushiol on the dead leaves, branches and roots will remain potent for at least a year



You can remove poison ivy easier if you wait until after a rain, or if you soak the area completely with a hose or sprinkler. Make sure the water penetrates the ground deeply enough to soak the roots.

Wear a long sleeve shirt or jacket, and pants and socks to completely cover your legs and ankles. Wear boots or high topped shoes. Also wear goggles and heavy gloves long enough to cover your wrists. You probably will want to apply some poison ivy blocking lotion to your face.

Get plenty of large, heavy plastic garbage bags and then some smaller plastic grocery bags to put over your gloved hands.

Put a plastic grocery bag over each hand and pull up a plant by the root. Then put the vine into a large plastic garbage bag. Repeat until you have all the ivy pulled out.

When finished, take the garbage bag to your trash can; don't use the vines for compost. Remove the plastic grocery bags from your hands and open the door to your house with your gloves if they were never exposed to the poison ivy. If you think they were, carefully remove the gloves without touching the outside and use your bare hands to open your door. Poison ivy can be spread by urushiol on door handles, light switches, tools, clothes, etc.

Once you're indoors and making sure you haven't brushed against anything, strip out of your clothes. Put everything straight into the washer and don't mix with other clothing. Wash the clothes in cold water and soap.

Then get into the shower and wash with cool water only - no soap and no washcloth. Water dissolves the poisonous oil; soap and cloth can spread it to other areas. After you've showered for several minutes with plain water, then shower using soap and shampoo.

The next day, go back outside to see if you missed pulling any poison ivy roots. If you see some close to the ground where they would be hard to pull up, smother the roots with heavy carpet or some other heavy material, leaving it there for a month or longer.


NOTE:  Don't forget to use a water hose to clean your tools, too, since you don't want to be exposed to the oil again  Urushiol can remain active for at least a year.

Photo of poison ivy leaves in fall 



Updated: 03/24/2015, AngelaJohnson
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frankbeswick on 01/22/2016

That what for one is a drug is for another a medicine is shown by what happened to my son in the Andes. He fell ill with the potentially fatal altitude sickness. The cure:coca leaf tea. Illegal in some countries, but a life-saver in certain circumstances.So we look forward to seeing what medicinal drug can be extracted from poison ivy.

frankbeswick on 01/22/2016

It is truly said, "The poison is the dose." Many substances can be medicinal in the right dose, but poisonous in excess.

AngelaJohnson on 01/22/2016

Tolovaj - You could be right. Scientists often find good uses for dangerous plants - such as foxglove, which is poisonous to eat, but the medicine digitalis is made from it.

Tolovaj on 01/22/2016

It would be very interesting to find out why is poison ivy so violent against human and so harmless to so many animals. I bet sometime in the future a very powerful medicine will be made from it!
Thanks for all the tips:)

frankbeswick on 03/29/2015

Thanks for this information.

AngelaJohnson on 03/29/2015

frankbeswick - let's hope poison ivy doesn't spread much in the UK and that people are aware of it and get rid of it safely. It's all over in the midwestern U.S. where I grew up, and my sister has it on her property in east Tennessee. She didn't even know she had it - I pointed out all the plants to her so she and my brother-in-law could get rid of them.

AngelaJohnson on 03/29/2015

jptanabe - I haven't heard about Sumactin, but glad it worked for you. I've used hot water, too, and it helps. I used aloe vera gel to help control the itching. I didn't have a plant so I bought a bottle of it at a store. It doesn't seem to be for sale except around summer time and it's displayed along with suntan lotions.

frankbeswick on 03/27/2015

I have done some research on poison ivy, and it seems that it was introduced to Britain [presumably by someone with no sense of responsibility.] It is not widespread, but it grows well near water. It also thrives in high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, so the situation with this invasive species will worsen with as CO2 rises. So your article, besides being interesting to a Brit, is a timely warning.

jptanabe on 03/27/2015

Oh poison ivy - I've suffered from it so many times! The only thing I've found to treat it effectively is called Sumactin - a liquid that you spray on the affected area. Also, I found that to relieve the itching the best way is to run hot water, as hot as you can stand, on the affected area. It seems to take the "sting" out of the itch for several hours!

AngelaJohnson on 03/24/2015

frankbeswick- I'm glad you like the article I sure hope poison ivy never gets established in the U.K. I've had the rash several times before I finally learned to recognize the plant. I always got exposed on the insides of my arms - from wrists to elbows. The rash itches like crazy!

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