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Facts about Poison Ivy

How do you get poison ivy?

From touching it, or touching something that has touched it, like your clothes or your dog. You normally get it from touching the leaves, but yanking the vine out by the roots - even in winter - will give you a wicked rash.

Using a weed eater to remove poison ivy will result in spraying your legs with poison ivy. If you are bare-legged and get scratches while splattered with sap from poison ivy, you may be headed to the emergency room.

And there are more unusual ways to get it, like breathing smoke from firewood burning with poison ivy on it. Which can also put people into the hospital.


What about immunity?

Some people appear to be immune, others become immune. HOWEVER, you can gain or lose immunity, so to assume you can't get it if you never have before is foolish. People change as they age. I would never assume that I was immune at any time no matter what my past experience was.


What it is like to get it?

At first you get a slight itchy spot, which gets worse and worse. It can be a a small itchy area that will annoy you, or it can cover your whole body with giant red sores that will drive you nuts. See the rash slide show to see the rash in real life.

The poison ivy rash, even when not huge and ugly, can be one of the itchiest experiences a person will every have.


What if you know you've been exposed to it?

Within a hour or so you should rinse with lots of cold water - like a garden hose. Hot water will open your pores and let the oil in. Taking shower could be a disaster (see my father's story, "Washing made it spread." (Later, after the oil is all absorbed or washed off, and you HAVE a big rash, hot showers can ease the itch for a few hours.)

For up to about 6 hours washing with alcohol may still help remove the oil, but many say that after 1/2 hour the oil has soaked in and you can't remove it.

The next day is really too late. Check with your doctor to see if early treatment can prevent the rash before it really starts.


What can you do once the itching starts?

For a serious case you MUST SEE A DOCTOR. For less serious cases check with your local drugstore or see the list below for remedies.

Here are a list of popular home remedies:

  • Take a shower in the hottest water you can stand, for as long as you can stand - this may ease the itch for a few hours.
  • If heat eases your rash, you can also try a hair dryer, but BE CAREFUL. Don't burn yourself!
  • Jewelweed is widely thought to help the rash. Mash the weed and apply to the rash.
  • Spray with a deodorant containing aluminum, which most do.



How long does the rash last?

Anywhere from a week to 3 weeks, depending on how bad it is and how you treat it. Prescription remedies make it go away much faster.


What are some common remedies for the rash?

These companies make two kinds of products - creams to block the oil from getting into your skin, and remedies once you have the rash:

Buji Skin Products
Tec Labs, Makers of Tecnu
Sumactin, Rash Remedy
Zanfel, skin wash


How long does the oil last?

The oil from poison ivy is extremely stable and will stay potent - essentially forever. You can get a rash from clothing or tools that have the oil from last summer, or even from many years back.

So if you don't remove the oil by washing, using alcohol to dissolve it, or by just hosing off with a hard spray from a hose - assume it will stay forever.

Read this story about a sleeping bag!


Pets and Poison Ivy

All of the vets and books state clearly that no animal - other than humans - can get a rash from poison ivy. Clearly, goats and other grazers eat the greens, and birds eat the seeds.

However, many people do get a rash from the urushiol oil on the fur of their pets. Which leads to the question of how to get the oil off of the fur. I would wash the animal wearing thick rubber gloves (not latex). After washing the animal I would wash myself off as well, using cold water to keep the pores closed.


Is it contagious?

Once you have the rash the oil has been absorbed and you probably can't spread it to others or elsewhere on yourself. If you get big blisters filled with liquid it is mostly water and will not spread the rash even if they break. (Although I have viewers who SWEAR that the fluid does cause further outbreaks.)


What causes the rash?

There is an oil, called urushiol, that causes an allergic reaction after the first sensitizing exposure. The oil is in the leaves, vines, and roots. That's why tearing out the vine is so dangerous - it releases lots of urushiol.


Aren't there 2 types of poison ivy?

Technically there is the climbing variety (toxicodendron radicans) and the non climbing (toxicodendron rydbergii) or Rydberg's poison ivy. But since they interbreed, look very similar, sometimes grow in the same places, and give you the same rash I have ignored the difference.

In the southeastern US there is also eastern poison oak, which is slightly different, and doesn't climb things. I think many people confuse poison ivy and poison oak in the east, but they are pretty similar and produce the same effect, so it doesn't worth arguing about.


Cleaning clothes exposed to the plant oil.

I can only tell you what I would do if I had clothing that I was pretty sure had the urushiol oil on it.

1. If I could afford to, I would throw the clothes away, because no matter how much you clean them you will tend to itch when you wear them, just from thinking about the poison ivy.

2. If the clothing is too good to toss, I would wash it, if possible with bleach, and I would wash it twice.

For leather shoes, I would use rags and alcohol, while wearing thick rubber (not latex) gloves. After that I would apply oil because the alcohol is sure to dry out the leather.


Where does it grow?

Everywhere in the US and southern Canada except the far west, deserts and at high altitude. In the west they have poison oak, which is very similar. Both love roadsides and edges of fields. And certainly into southern Canada and northern Mexico as well.


What are some good PI links?

The best all round web source of information and more links is the Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac Information Center.

For medical advice, try:
The American Academy of Dermatology Poison Ivy Page:

A site with advice on getting rid of poison ivy. (Put together by the University of Oklahoma Police Dept)

A tutorial site with a poison ivy quiz.

A site just about Poison Oak.

A site with some serious scientific information.

Neat outdoor site with a poison ivy page.

About.com: comprehensive articles about poison ivy


How do you get rid of poison ivy?

Recently, someone suggested getting a goat - a terrific idea for getting rid of poison ivy. Goats eat PI with no ill effects.

There are some downsides: they will also eat everything else they can reach, and depending on where you live, goats may make you unpopular with the neighbors.

This is the most commonly asked question, and not easy to answer.

If you rip it out by the roots you can catch a terrible case of poison ivy rash. It will likely grow back until you get every last bit of root. And you can't burn it because the smoke can get in your lungs and make you so sick you won't believe it. (We have a story on this.)

If you have it in a field and keep mowing it, it might give up and die, but be VERY careful about mowing it. When you grind up the leaves you create a nasty soup out of the leaves.

You could cut it off at the ground, let the vine die, and keep cutting it off till it gives up and dies. This could take a few years.

You might be able to cover a ground vine with black plastic until it dies. But you'll need to plant something else right away or it will come roaring back.

You can spray with broadleaf herbicide, but you risk killing lots of harmless plants and who knows what else. But I once knew a dedicated organic gardener that came to borrow our sprayer and poison because her land was so massively infested with it she just couldn't live with it. In the end, many situations call for wise use of a product like Roundup.

Most counties in America have some sort of County Extension Agent that can give you advice about how to handle it in your particular situation.


What's good about Poison Ivy?

Poison ivy does have its good points:

• It feeds wild birds and animals who eat it without ill effects.
• It holds the earth very well against erosion near the ocean.
• Native Americans had medical uses for it.

And we probably don't know enough about it to know what is its true value for nature or potenial value for man.


What are some good Poison Ivy books?

All of these books give a nice overview of the subject - and all are hard to find. Try your local independent bookstore first - but if that doesn't work you can get them from Amazon.

1. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, Poison Sumac and their relatives...
by Edward Frankel, Ph.D.
This one has more science and botany.

2. The Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac Book
by Thomas E. Anderson
Solid all around. Everything you need to know.

3. Outwitting Poison Ivy AND Nature's Revenge
by Susan Carol Hauser
These are the SAME book, so don't buy both. They have good history and personal stories.

4. Poison Ivy Pets and People
A new book by Heidi Rattner Connolly and Randy Connolly available through Amazon.



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