Poison Ivy Guide

Poison Ivy GuideNow that hiking and camping season is upon us, many of you are likely spending a day, or even a lot of days in the woods or garden. While your focus may be on enjoying the scenery or cleaning out that tangle of vines to plant a garden, you may easily overlook a certain shiny, three-leafed plant that can most certainly ruin your day, week and even your month.

Poison ivy can cause considerable discomfort, and is always best to be avoided at all costs. But, just what does poison ivy look like, where can it be found, and what can you do if you DO come in contact with it?

We put this guide together to answer these exact questions for you, so that you can be prepared to keep away (or deal with the worst) if poison ivy is commonly found in your area.

What and Where?

Commit to memory, the phrase “leaves of three, let it be”. Poison ivy is a very common plant in North America that secretes a clear liquid called urushiol that, upon contact can cause an allergic reaction in the form of a skin rash. Most commonly found in suburban and forested areas of the eastern US, it is also found in the Midwest and even as far north as Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.

Although it is called ‘ivy’, the name can be misleading, as poison ivy can actually be found growing in three different forms:

  • Growing Vine, in which the poison ivy grows up and around a tree which is used as the support
  • Trailing Vine, which grows without the support and tends to ‘trail’ off onto the ground
  • Shrub Form, which seems to be the least known form, and may make it easier for you to mistake


Because poison ivy is feared, there are many myths around its danger and power. Here are a few of these myths, debunked:

“The Rash Caused by Poison Ivy is Contagious.”

  • Actually, the rash itself is NOT contagious, but rather the urushiol oil that causes the reaction can be spread person-to-person by contact. It can also be passed from dog to person, so be sure to bathe your four-legged hiking companion well, if you think he or she may have come in contact with poison ivy.

“Dead Poison Ivy is No Longer Poisonous.”

  • While the plant itself may be dead, the urushiol can live on any dead surface for up to 5 years. Be sure to wear gloves when handling dead poison ivy. Never burn poison ivy. According to the Wildland Firefighter Magazine website, inhalation of burning poison ivy and oak plants is common among firefighters although much less common among the general population. The heavy particles of the smoke contain urushiol, which will fall down in soot form and can be inhaled. The lungs can swell, cause coughing, and extreme irritation and swelling in the throat. – See more at Tec Labs

“Everyone is Allergic to Poison Ivy.”

  • The allergic reaction caused by poison ivy is dependent upon a person’s sensitivity to the urushiol. Some people may not have any allergic reaction to urushiol at all, and thus would have no allergic reaction to the poison ivy plant. But, just because you’ve never reacted in the past, doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. You can gain or lose immunity as you age.


The symptomatic rash can look very different from person to person, because the rash is completely dependent on how a person comes into contact with the urushiol. However, no matter how the contact with the poisonous oil is made, there are several symptoms that remain consistent in most poison ivy-related reactions, which include:

  • Intense itchy rash
  • Redness (may be red streaks if you brushed past a poison ivy plant)
  • Hives
  • Swelling
  • Outbreak of blisters, often forming streaks or lines on the skin (may be small or large)
  • Crusting skin that is a result from burst blisters


Poison Ivy CreamThe obvious and best medicine for poison ivy is prevention – an understanding of what it looks like and where it is located so that you can avoid it all together (hence the reason we published this article). But, as you embark on your hiking and camping excursions throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons, you may come in contact with the urushiol, and it’s always best to know what to do when avoidance is no longer an option.

If you come in contact with poison ivy, or even just the urushiol, you should:

  • Rinse the area of your skin that came in contact with the urushiol with lukewarm water and soap for at least 10 minutes, in order to fully remove the oil.
  • Wash anything that the oil came in contact with, including any clothes and any other surfaces such as camping and/or hiking gear.
  • If your skin begins to itch, don’t scratch! Apply a lotion that is calamine-based or a hydrocortisone cream to relieve the itching. You can also try taking an antihistamine if topical remedies don’t work, but this may cause drowsiness, so be careful.
  • If symptoms become severe, visit an urgent care center or see your doctor. There are prescription-only treatments that can help to alleviate symptoms and get you on the road to recovery.

Do you have any experience with poison ivy or remedies? Please, share in the comments below!


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  • Bob Handelsman

    I have been fishing trout streams in southern Michigan for over 30 years and frequently came in contact with poison ivy. I never got any on my hands because my hands are frequently in the water. I found that, if I periodically immersed my arms in the stream for 10-20 seconds (no soap) I would not have problems with poison ivy. If I forgot to immerse my arms, which frequently happened, washing my arms with soap and water within an hour or so after leaving the stream was sufficient. One does not have to wash for 10 minutes as mentioned.

  • Paul Sorlie

    Soap & water works well within a few minutes of getting the oil on your skin. Alcohol works better, and can dissolve the oil away much longer after exposure. I’ll gladly use a whole $0.79 bottle of rubbing alcohol to scrub off, then follow up with soap & water. Take care with the clothes worn that might have the urushiol.
    Now, how about a photo gallery of the different forms in different seasons & stages, plus photos of safe look-alike plants?

  • Dave Long

    Crazy as it sounds there are homeopathic remedies such as Rhus Tox, that work absolute wonders with Poison Ivy. This past summer, 2 days into a 10 day camping trip, my 7 year old daughter had poison ivy on her arms, neck, belly and legs and was going absolutely crazy with the itch. We were considering taking her into the local hospital when another camper offered Rhus Tox 30C granules, and some Rhus Tox tincture in a cream base that we applied topically. 5 minutes later she was able to stop itching and 5 or 6 doses and 45 minutes later she was pretty much back to normal… no itch and the red welts went away in a day or so…and best of all, no further interuption to the campping trip! In my mind, up to that point the jury was still out about homeopathy… but when we go out next, Rhus Tox will definitely be in my bag somewhere.

    • Kathy

      Where does one find this Rhus Tox? I have an extreme case as poison ivy and the doctor gave me prednisone and Claritin. I wash with warm soapy water and rinse with cold water. I’ve tried ice packs to help the swelling and itching but nothing is very effective. My face is swelling so badly I can barely see and the rash is still spreading. I am in about day 5 of the start of it but day 3 of treatment. Any advice?

  • Ken Sprinkle

    That’s nice, but I have not ever seen good pictures (close up and whole plant) to help identify poison sumac – and I have been a Boy Scout and Boy Scout leader since the sixties!