How to Identify Poison Ivy: Images and Treatment

Picture of Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy growing on the side of a beech tree in the state of New York.
Poison Ivy growing on the side of a beech tree in the state of New York. | Source

Poison Ivy Dangers and Distribution.

In 1609, Captain John Smith encountered a rather unpleasant plant on American soil. After observing the horrible, itchy rash that developed upon contact with its leaves, he coined the term "poison ivy." The scientific name for the plant is Toxicodendron radicans, which carries an irritating, oily sap called urushiol.

Urushiol causes an allergic reaction upon contact, and creates fluid filled blisters on any skin unfortunate enough to have wandered too near the plant. The urushiol can cause lung irritation if the plant is burned and particles are inhaled along with smoke: burning poison ivy is not a recommended method of eradicating the plants.

All states East of the Rockies will have poison ivy growing in the woods. The plant also grows in the Canadian provinces of Quebec, Manitoba, and Ontario.

Poison Ivy Leaf

The side leaflet exhibits the "mitten with a thumb" shape characteristic of Poison Ivy.
The side leaflet exhibits the "mitten with a thumb" shape characteristic of Poison Ivy. | Source

Poison Ivy Identification

Many people have heard the familiar phrase, "leaves of three, leave it be!" Poison ivy does have clusters of three leaves, but so do many other plants in the woods. Poison ivy never has more than three leaves grouped together on its branches, while other plants may have some stems bearing three leaves and others bearing groups of 5 or 6 leaves.

Look for the following key identifying features on the plant:

  • Poison ivy usually grows on a hairy vine.
  • It may be found on the ground or scaling a tree.
  • The leaves appear slightly shiny.
  • The plant will fruit with white berries.
  • The middle leaflet will have a longer stem than the side leaflets.
  • The side leaflets will have a mitten shape.
  • Poison ivy leaf clusters alternate up the vine stem, and are not directly opposite each other.

Poison ivy may grow along the ground as a vine, grow as a shrub (up to four feet tall), or scale trees and other plants in the forest. Very old vines may develop a shaggy appearance against the tree, and tree climbers should beware the leaves, which may be hidden among the tree foliage.

Virginia Creeper or Poison Ivy?

These leaves cover the floor of our forest - the majority have clusters of three leaves. Another stem attached to the plant gives its identification away: the group of five leaves proves it is Virginia Creeper, not poison ivy.
These leaves cover the floor of our forest - the majority have clusters of three leaves. Another stem attached to the plant gives its identification away: the group of five leaves proves it is Virginia Creeper, not poison ivy. | Source

Mimics and Similar Plants

There are many plants that look similar to poison ivy. Virginia Creeper is a vine that grows in the same locations as poison ivy, but will not cause any skin reaction. Unlike poison ivy, Virginia Creeper will have groups of 4-6 leaves - in early spring, however, the plant may have three leaves on most stems.

When walking through the woods, look for the characteristic hairy, reddish vine and the other distinguishing features of poison ivy. The following rhymes may be helpful to remember when going on a hike in the Eastern United States and Canada:

  • Leaves of three - leave it be!
  • Leaves like a mitten - you'll be itchin'!
  • Raggy rope, don't be a dope!
  • Berries white, danger in sight.
  • Long middle stem, stay away from them!

Virginia Creeper and Poison Ivy Leaves

Virginia Creeper (on the left) is not as shiny as Poison Ivy. In addition, the leaves have a slightly serrated edge, the plant lacks a hairy vine, and the leaf veins are slightly wrinkled.
Virginia Creeper (on the left) is not as shiny as Poison Ivy. In addition, the leaves have a slightly serrated edge, the plant lacks a hairy vine, and the leaf veins are slightly wrinkled. | Source

Plants that Look Similar to Poison Ivy

Plant Name
Distinguishing Feature
Beware
Virginia Creeper
Some stems have clusters of 4-6 leaflets, leaves are serrated.
Some people are allergic to the oxalate in Virginia Creeper sap. Virginia Creeper also often grows alongside poison ivy.
Box Elder
Some branches have clusters of 5-7 leaves, the leaves are not alternating on the stem.
No warnings.
Kudzu
Has clusters of 3 leaflets. Leaves are bigger than poison ivy and are covered with soft hair on the underside.
Invasive species to the United States.
Blackberries
Stems have clusters of 3-5 leaves, stems are thorny. Leaf bottoms are pale, mint green in color and leaves are serrated.
No warnings.
Riverbank Grape
No rootlets on vine, and vine is purplish rather than brown.
No warnings.
Fragrant Sumac
Nearly identical to poison ivy: Fragrant Sumac produces flowers prior to leafing out. Fruit is red rather than white.
No warnings.
Hoptree
Much, much larger than Poison Ivy - it has much bigger leaves and different flowers and fruit.
No warnings.

Ivy Block Prevention Lotion

Prevent Contact

When hiking in woods throughout the Eastern U.S. and Canada, it is a wise idea to wear sturdy shoes and long pants in the spring, summer, and fall seasons. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: if you accidentally brush up against poison ivy while wearing protective clothing, a rash is much less likely.

Unfortunately, the urushiol oil may stay on dead leaves for up to 5 years, and the oil will also remain on clothes. Fels Naptha soap will remove poison ivy oils (this bar soap can be found in the laundry aisle of a grocery or department store). If clothes are heavily exposed to poison ivy, try making homemade laundry detergent with Fels Naptha to remove the oils.

Another product is called Ivy Block: applied like sunscreen, this product prevents poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac rashes. The lotion is FDA approved to prevent rashes: forest workers and hikers would be wise to use this product whenever they are in the woods.

What to do if Poison Ivy is on Your Skin

If you have accidentally brushed up against poison ivy in the woods, immediately rinse the affected area in cold water. If the urushiol oil is removed before it bonds with the skin, you may avoid a reaction. If more than 15 minutes has elapsed since the time of exposure, the water will not work.

There is a product called Poison Ivy Prevention Soap, which works quite well for preventing skin rashes. This soap contains a surfactant to lift the oil from the skin and an antihistamine to stop the allergic reaction. When hiking in infested areas, this soap is a wise addition to your backpack!

Poison Ivy Scaling a Tree

Poison ivy scales a tree: note the characteristic reddish, hairy "rope" - avoid contact with this plant at all costs!
Poison ivy scales a tree: note the characteristic reddish, hairy "rope" - avoid contact with this plant at all costs! | Source

Poison Ivy Rash Treatment

Hot Water: Many people swear by the use of hot showers once the contact dermatitis rears its ugly head. The hot water soothes the itching, sometimes for hours.

Steroid Creams: Available by prescription, a cream called Diprolene AF is extremely effective at controlling the itch. Some physicians may also give an injection of steroids or prescribe prednisone.

Antihistamines: Benadryl and Zyrtec are ingestible, over-the-counter antihistamines that may help the itching caused by poison ivy. Caladryl is an over-the-counter lotion that combines calamine with an antihistamine. This lotion can be placed on top of the blisters and is soothing.

Zanfel, Tecnu, and Rhuli: These commercial products help dry up the blisters caused by poison ivy and alleviate itch. Rhuli-gel is also called "anti-itch gel" and is manufactured by Johnson and Johnson. These products are found at your local drugstore or online.

Soap: Wash the affected area with Fels Naptha or Dial soap. If you use Dial soap, rub the blisters with the soap and allow the area to dry.

Natural Remedies: Tea tree oil has many advocates for stopping the itch from a poison ivy rash. Mixing Goldenseal root powder with aloe vera gel is also effective. A "tea" made from impatients (boil the flowers and leaves in water, then apply the cooled liquid) has many fans, as does rhubarb (break open the stem and rub the rhubarb on the blisters).

Best Poison Ivy Remedy: A Poll

What is Your Favorite Remedy for Poison Ivy?

See results without voting

A Recipe for Natural Poison Ivy Remedy

Mix together 1/4 cup aloe vera gel, 1/2 cup jewelweed leaves and stems, and 1/4 cup water in a blender. Process until smooth, then place in a small saucepan. Add a bag of comphrey tea and bring the entire mixture to a boil.

Use a strainer to remove the pulp from the liquid. Place the liquid in a spray bottle and spritz the solution on the poison ivy rash.

Note: Jewelweed often grows in the same forests occupied by poison ivy. The plant has oblong leaves and bright orange, trumpet-like flowers. The seed pods are long and burst open when touched: Jewelweed is a relative of impatiens. If there is no jewelweed in your local area, substitute the Jewelweed with impatients stems and leaves.

Poison Ivy Description by a Six Year Old

More by this Author


Comments 44 comments

cardelean profile image

cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

Great guide Leah! I love the table with the comparison of plants. I grew up knowing the leaves of three saying but never really knew what I was looking for until I was an adult. My next door neighbor has poison ivy growing up his tree so we have had the opportunity to show and explain to the kids about it. Nicely done and I've linked this to my itchy skin hub. :)


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

What an informative hub. There are those who will say, "I knew that" but I think many more who will say, "so that's what it really looks like!" You've done a really good job of showing the leaves and explaining what to look for. Voted up, useful and interesting!!


Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio

Oh that hateful plant! It gave me the worst week of my life because I did not recognize it at the time, but now I can spot it from ten feet away and I learned a lot about handling it. Nice info here! )


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Cara, we moved to the Eastern side of the country about 7 years ago and it took a while for us to properly identify it! We were used to poison oak, which looks entirely different - but not poison ivy! We have shown the plant in our woods to our kids several times now, so they are able to recognize it. Maybe I should add a video of Matt talking about poison ivy - it's pretty cute, lol!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

A lot of people do know what it looks like, but many others have no idea and it is a good plant to learn to identify! So many plants in the woods have groupings of three leaves, which makes it even more confusing!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Oh, Robie - sorry you came in contact with it! It is nasty stuff - those blisters itch horribly!


cardelean profile image

cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

You should Leah, that would be great!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

I'll go in and edit it in a few minutes. He cracks me up - he's like a junior naturalist!


lindacee profile image

lindacee 4 years ago from Southern Arizona

Thorough Hub on the subject of poison ivy, Leah! Great formatting and I like that you used a chart, video, poll and Amazon ads. I have to say the video is my favorite! It's nice to have access to expert commentary! :)


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

I really like the video, too - but I'm biased. Haha! We certainly have our share of poison ivy in the woods - I just hope no one gets into it!


cardelean profile image

cardelean 4 years ago from Michigan

LOVE the video! I'll definitely stay away from those THREE leaves! :)


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

He's a total crack-up. We were actually making a video for some Australian friends - we are doing a pen-pal project this summer to strengthen Matt's writing skills, but we made a video for them to see our house and woods first. Matt wanted to do a segment on Poison Ivy, which was rather convenient to include here!


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I am highly allergic to the plant and have to keep far away from it. This guide is great and will help others to recognize it and how to treat it well.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

I have a cousin who is so allergic to poison oak he can't risk being in the same area at all, because he could have a fatal reaction. Fortunately my family just gets itchy (not fun, but not a severe allergic reaction, either). I am glad you stay far away from it, teaches!


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

I have had more poison ivy reactions than I care to relate. It was the bane of my childhood days as I suffered from it each summer for a time. The problem is that there are so many things that look like poison ivy! You did a good job here on pointing out some of the differences. I was unaware of the ivy block lotion and soap. Rating this useful, interesting and will definitely SHARE so that others might learn how to avoid this troublesome plant.


kittythedreamer profile image

kittythedreamer 4 years ago from the Ether

Wow, really good. Thanks for reminding me what poison ivy looks like...it's been so long since I've come in contact with it, I almost forgot about it! Awesome hub.


JenJen0703 profile image

JenJen0703 4 years ago from Cereal City U.S.A.

We have poison ivy in our back yard, and my son came into contact with it. I am glad to have read this article, as I am not allergic to poison ivy and do not get it. My son, on the other hand, is very allergic.


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

This is great. I have had poison ivy so many times I couldn't even begin to guess how often. In fact, just this morning I noticed two patches of it, one on each knee. You would think by now that I would be able to recognize and avoid the stuff? Great info, thanks.


Brett Winn profile image

Brett Winn 4 years ago from US

An awesome hub. I guess I've been fortunate, for I'm always in the woods, and have never before been clear on what Poison Ivy looks like. We have lots of Virginia Creeper. Thank you for this guide that finally makes it clear! Great job!


RedElf profile image

RedElf 4 years ago from Canada

Love the video! I was lucky enough not to come across any poison Ivy while I lived in ON, and had trouble identifying it out here. We have Box Elder, Virginia Creeper, and Sumac, but thankfully, I haven't come across anything like whet you have shown.

I shall certainly remember the reddish hairy rope.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

We have to start eliminating our poison ivy problem this summer, Peggy, so I'll be buying plenty of the ivy block! It is certainly a nasty plant to come in contact with.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Kittythedreamer, we live in a rural area and it is everywhere - though fortunately the woods that back up to our house only has the one plant!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Oh, JenJen - I hope your son recovered well and never comes into contact with it again -the allergic response can become more intense with each exposure! So very scary.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Oh, no bdegiulio- maybe try some Ivy Block? Goodness - it can definitely be a real problem on hikes, and can hide in the foliage of other plants so it isn't always possible to avoid it. Itchy stuff!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

When we first moved here, Brett, we thought the Virginia Creeper was poison ivy because of the three-leaf configuration of new spring leaves. Fortunately Virginia Creeper isn't very itch-inducing, because it is EVERYWHERE in our woods. The poison ivy is isolated to one spot, thank goodness!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

RedElf, the hairy rope is a dead giveaway - those little rootlets occur in poison ivy and do not appear in its mimics. It is certainly a plant to avoid!


emimemo profile image

emimemo 4 years ago from USA

It is a great time for this hub! I think we have some poison ivy on our tree too. I will go check the image tomorrow morning. Thanks.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Take care, emimemo - I hope it isn't, but definitely check those side leaves and the central vine. We have poison ivy in that tree, and it is also growing along the ground in that general area. The ivy on the ground is harder to see and hides among the foliage of the other plants - wear shoes and pants if you step into the woods!


rfmoran profile image

rfmoran 4 years ago from Long Island, New York

Wow. I get poison ivy just by thinking about it. Thank you for such a useful hub. The photos are great as are your limerics. I recently heard of a product called Tecnu. I found it to be amazingly effective. It's an over-the-counter cream.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

I have heard that Tecnu works really well, rfmoran! We have a significant amount of poison ivy in our woods, but fortunately no one has managed to rub up against it yet (our woods are filled with lots of thorny underbrush, which prevents our children from getting into it).


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

leahlefler; this is an excellent article about this plant which can cause such unpleasant skin reactions. The photos and descriptions are all helpful in identifying the plant and distinguishing the leaves from similar looking species, and the advice on what to do after coming into contact with the plant is useful. Voted up in several categories. Alun.

leahlefler, I write reviews of other hubs, and currently I am writing a review of ten of the best hubs about wild plants and would like to promote this hub in that review. However, I always include a photo from the hub that I am reviewing, so I must ask if it is OK to use one of your photos. If not, I understand the reasons. If you wish to see how the photo would be used, an example of a previous review about dinosaur hubs can be found at the link below. Cheers. Alun.

http://hubpages.com/education/DinosaursPrehistoric...


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Hi Greensleeves Hubs - you may use the photo in your review of wild plant hubs. Poison Ivy is definitely a species one would want to identify correctly - the rash is not a pleasant experience! Thanks for your comment (and inclusion in your review)!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 4 years ago from Essex, UK

My pleasure and thanks leahlefler. This must be one of the most useful hubs for anyone taking a walk in the woods. I'll probably be able to publish the review of wild plant hubs within the next week. Hope it introduces a few more visitiors to your page. Alun.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 4 years ago from Western New York Author

Thank you, Alun. Our woods are absolutely filled with poison ivy (unfortunately) and it is very difficult to eradicate. It grows along the ground and winds itself around nearly every tree in our woods!


Karine Gordineer profile image

Karine Gordineer 3 years ago from Upstate New York

Hi Leah - Great hub on poison ivy! Loved your detailed comparison with other plants. My favorite remedy is Jewelweed which you can actually make a salve from that is quite effective.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 3 years ago from Western New York Author

Thanks, Karine - I need to get a picture of Jewelweed to include in this hub. We have a lot of it growing at the edge of our woods. We also have a lot of Virginia Creeper and blackberries growing in our woods, so we have taught our boys to recognize the difference between the various plants!


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

Leah, this is very useful, especially at this time of season. Great rules of thumbs, when hiking in the woods. Voted up!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 17 months ago from Western New York Author

The forest by our house is filled with poison ivy, Kristen, and it is definitely good to be able to identify it! My boys both ended up with (thankfully mild) poison ivy rashes last summer - I hope we avoid it entirely this summer!


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

I hope you're right Leah. I know my brother had poison sumac, long time ago. Thank goodness for the medicine.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 17 months ago from Western New York Author

We love the products available to help stop the spread of poison ivy. Calamine lotion helps a lot, too!


Kristen Howe profile image

Kristen Howe 17 months ago from Northeast Ohio

That what I couldn't think of, Leah, Calamine lotion, which is also good for bug bite relief too! Amen for that!


Bonnie 17 months ago

Best remedy I've found is a bit unique but it may be helpful to some of you with access. It's my prescription eczema ointment. It's called Triamcinolone and it's only available from a dermatologist. But if you happen to have it around the house because you suffer from another skin condition, it's a life saver. It cleared me up in a single day. And I'm highly allergic, I always end up on prednisone, so this was a welcome bit of information.


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 13 months ago from Western New York Author

My older boy had a rather nasty run-in with poison ivy about a year ago. We were very thankful for IvyBlock and Caladryl after that incident!


leahlefler profile image

leahlefler 13 months ago from Western New York Author

Bonnie, that is a fantastic tip! My son was affected with poison ivy on his neck and face, and our pediatrician had him apply hydrocortisone (another steroid ointment, but this one is over the counter). It was very helpful! Thank goodness the Triamcinolone helped you - I wouldn't wish poison ivy on anyone!

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