How to Identify Poison Ivy: Images and Treatment
Picture of Poison Ivy
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
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?
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
Plants that Look Similar to Poison Ivy
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.
Some branches have clusters of 5-7 leaves, the leaves are not alternating on the stem.
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.
Stems have clusters of 3-5 leaves, stems are thorny. Leaf bottoms are pale, mint green in color and leaves are serrated.
No rootlets on vine, and vine is purplish rather than brown.
Nearly identical to poison ivy: Fragrant Sumac produces flowers prior to leafing out. Fruit is red rather than white.
Much, much larger than Poison Ivy - it has much bigger leaves and different flowers and fruit.
Ivy Block Prevention Lotion
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 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 impatiens (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?
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.