Getting Rid of Poison Ivy

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Toxicodendron radicans.  Even in Greek, the poison ivy plant sounds dangerous.  If you have ever experienced the uncomfortable and itchy rash that it cause, you know how dangerous it is. 

This rash, caused by an oily resin called urushiol, results in a skin reaction characterized by redness, itching, and, in some cases, fluid-filled blisters.  It goes without saying that you should be extremely cautious around these toxic vining plants and try to be adequately prepared when dealing with them.

There are several things you might not know about poison ivy plants.  And what you might not know can come back to hurt you if you are caught unaware.

So let’s look at poison ivy, oak, and sumac.  You will learn how to identify each plant and tell them apart.  In addition, you’ll learn what they all have in common. Armed with that knowledge, we will dive into how to get rid of if safely.

How to Identify Them

First, let’s take a look at how you can identify these three plants so you can recognize the danger they pose before you come into contact with the plants. After all, if it’s just an ivy plant, you can remove the ivy plant by other means.

Poison Ivy

You’ve probably heard “leaves of 3, let it be” when it comes to identifying poison ivy.  While this is helpful, it is certainly not everything you need to know.

poison ivy needs to be eliminated from your property

There are two different varieties of poison ivy:  eastern and western.

The eastern variety is the most common and can interbreed with its western relative.  The western variety is not nearly as common.

Most people are familiar with poison ivy growing as a ground vine.  However, it also thrives as a climbing vine distinguished by its hairy appearance. These vines can grow to be 6″ thick and climb to heights as high as 100′.

In fact, it can also present itself as a shrub or even a small tree. It does so by climbing something short like a fence post or a tree stump.  When the vines make it to the top and have nothing left to climb on, they will shoot out in all directions seeking sunlight and something else to climb.

Poison ivy is characterized and well-known for its three-leaf structure.  The leaf in the middle will be larger than those that shoot out from it.  The edges of its leaves can be both jagged or smooth, depending on which variety you encounter.

The leaf color will change with the seasons.  They will be a reddish color in the spring, green in the summer, and orange or yellow in the fall.  The plant will lose its leaves in the winter but can be identified by its root structure.

It is the most common of the three plants and can be found everywhere in the United States.

Poison Oak

Poison oak will grow as a ground vine and as a climbing vine.  In certain growing conditions, it will also present itself as a shrub.

Generally, it has a three-leaf structure, but it can grow as many as nine leaflets per cluster.

Poison oak gets its name because the leaves resemble that of the oak tree. The leaves are more distinctly toothed and jagged.  The leaves are also hairy on both sides and change color from red to green to orange as the seasons pass. 

poison oak has leaves with jagged ridges

Poison Sumac

Poison sumac grows as a shrub that can resemble a small tree and generally grows in swamp or marsh-like conditions.

Poison sumac leaves resemble feathers and are smooth around the edge.  Each leaf cluster consists of between 5 to 13 leaflets.  An interesting fact that may be helpful in identification is that while the number of leaflets will vary, they will always occur in odd numbers.

The plant’s leaf color will change according to the season.  Poison sumac also has berries.  In the spring, the berries are a light green and will change to a whitish color in the fall that resembles that of poison ivy berries.

Poison sumac on a tree needs to be killed for the safety of everyone

What These Plants Have In Common

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac have a few things in common. 

They are all members of the Toxicodendron genus.  Toxicodendron are flowering plants in the sumac family.

However, the primary reason you should know how to identify each plant comes down to one dangerous similarity:  Urushiol.

Regardless of which plant you come into contact with, urushiol is the common denominator. 

90% of people that touch plant oil containing urushiol will develop some form of contact dermatitis.  Contact dermatitis caused by urushiol can present itself in different ways.

Contact with this oily plant resin results in an allergic reaction on the skin.  The rash may appear as dry, red, swollen skin or fluid-filled blisters.

Urushiol can be found in every single part of these plants.  The leaves, stems, roots, and berries all contain the rash-causing substance.

Urushiol can remain on your clothes, gardening tools, and even dead plants for up to 5 years.

Treating a Rash

A poison ivy rash is nothing to sneeze at.  It is painful, itchy, and uncomfortable.  It feels amazing to scratch at the affected area and it brings an immediate sense of relief and satisfaction.

However, it is also the absolute worst thing you can do if you want to get rid of it.  As good as scratching the rash feels, it spreads the oil to other areas of your skin.  In addition to causing spread, the dirt from your fingernails can also cause an infection, which can be very hazardous to your health.

Urushiol from poison ivy can cause contact dermatitis rash.

Be Aware of Your Surroundings

If you believe there is even a chance you might contact the plant, you should prepare yourself.  Wear long sleeves, high socks, and avoid open-toed shoes.

If you plan on trying to remove poison ivy with your hands, then wear protective gloves.  Rubber gloves are preferable to cloth or leather because they are less porous and won’t absorb the oily resin.


Along with protective clothing, barrier creams are also another way to prevent yourself from getting a rash.  They leave a clay-like substance on your skin that can prevent the oil from making direct contact with your skin.

Immediate Following Contact With Plant

Some expert advice to remember is that if your skin comes into contact with poison ivy, you should immediately wash the area with cold, soapy water.  Within 30 minutes, you should apply rubbing alcohol to the affected area.  Rubbing alcohol will remove the oil and keep it from spreading on your skin.

Over the Counter Creams and Products

There are several products you can use once the rash develops to relieve the itching, swelling, and keep it from spreading further.

Calamine lotion and cortisone cream are two of the most popular products people buy to relieve the skin’s reaction.

Aluminum acetate is sold as a liquid astringent that relieves minor skin irritations caused by urushiol.

While you can take an OTC antihistamine orally to relieve symptoms, you should avoid applying an antihistamine cream as they can actually make the itching worse.

Poison ivy caution sign because of the dangers of poison ivy

Home Remedies

Baking soda is an effective ingredient to treat a skin rash at home.  Mix it with water into a concentrated paste to apply directly to your skin.  You can mix it into a solution to soak gauze pads in before you wrap the affected area.  You can also dissolve baking soda in your bath water before you get in.

Oatmeal is another popular home remedy.  You can relieve itching by applying it directly to your skin or grinding it up and putting it into your bathwater.

Applying apple cider vinegar to the rash will help draw the toxins out of your skin.

When to Seek Medical Advice

If you made the mistake of burning poison ivy and inhaling the smoke, you should immediately consult a doctor.  Urushiol can travel through the smoke into your lungs and cause a rash.  This can be fatal if not treated immediately.

Scratching your skin can not only spread the rash, but it can also be the cause of a skin infection.  So if you begin to run a fever or the skin will not stop oozing, you should see a physician.

If the rash covers more than 25% of your body or has spread to your mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth), you need to go to the hospital.

If you are allergic to the plant and show signs of anaphylaxis like trouble breathing, hives, or swelling, you should definitely seek medical care.

Steps For Removal

When the time comes to get rid of poison ivy, follow these instructions.

  1. Dress the Part
    Ensure you are dressed in appropriate protective gear for the job.  Safety first.
Removing poison ivy with gloves is important to prevent getting a reaction
  1. Spray in Advance
    If you plan to use an herbicide to kill the leaves, stems, and vines, add it in advance.  You have to give the herbicide time to work and kill the vegetation.  (You don’t have to use an herbicide.  You can remove it by hand, but it just takes more time and patience).
  1. Cut What You Can See
    Using garden shears, cut the plant as close as possible to ground level.  Place the trimmings in a thick contractor’s bag and set them aside.
  1. Grab a Shovel
    Dig out the plant’s roots with a shovel or trowel and place it into a contractor’s bag.  Be safe handling the roots as they are also poisonous.
  1. Check the Bags
    Ensure that each bag you use is secured at the top and has not been torn.
  1. Dispose Appropriately
    You should never try and compost it.  Instead, secure the bags you have filled and put them in the trash or haul them away.  Ensuring that the trimmings are secured will keep pets and other wildlife safe from harm.
  1. Wash Up
    Make sure that you clean everything you wear and touch in the removal process.  This includes tools and safety equipment.  You can use rubbing alcohol to clean the surfaces of what you have touched.
  1. Go Back and Check
    Poison ivy is hearty and aggressive.  So return to the area every so often to look for new growth will keep you ahead of the game.  Because once it is established again, it will spread quickly across your lawn.
poison ivy plant that needs to be removed

Additional tips

Poison ivy growing in your lawn or around other areas of your property can be hazardous to you and the people and pets your care about.  So it is a good idea to get rid of it, but do so safely.

Here are a few tips to remember.

Safety First

Remember that poison ivy is a dangerous and toxic plant.  Use proper protective equipment and be aware of what you’re doing on your lawn.  Dress appropriately for the occasion with rubber gloves, long sleeves and pants, safety glasses, and a breathing mask.  That way, you have a solid line of defense.

Don’t Burn It

Burning poison ivy can be deadly.  The smoke can carry the toxic chemicals through the air and enter your lungs. 

More Than Just the Leaves

Remember that the entire plant can cause a skin reaction.  Just because the leaves have fallen off in the cold weather doesn’t mean that you can touch it.

Along with “leaves of 3, let them be” you should also remember “hairy vine, no friend of mine.”  The vines along with the roots and berries are also very poisonous.

A bush poison ivy growing rampant that needs to be removed

Always Wash Everything

Everything that you wear and touch should be thoroughly cleaned after you are finished in your lawn.  The tools, your clothes, and anything else you touched in and around your lawn need disinfecting.  Rubbing alcohol is an effective compound for breaking down the oil on surfaces.

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About the author: Jeffrey Douglas is a horticultural hobbyist that loves everything related to plants and gardening. He specializes in gardens and houseplants.

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