Frequently Asked Questions on Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

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Answers to questions about the rash are here.

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How do you get the rash?

weedingMost people get the rash from touching leaves, while gardening, hiking, or looking for a ball lost in the weeds.

tool dogFrom a tool, from a pet, from clothing: from anything that has touched any of these plants.

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

smokeThe most dangerous way to come into contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac is by breathing smoke from a fire burning any of those plants. This happens often in California brush fires. But people have gotten very sick from breathing smoke from campfires and fireplaces where these plants are burned.

What about immunity?

face poison ivy rashAbout 15% of people are immune, and others can 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?

arm rashAt first you get a slight itchy spot, which gets worse and worse. It can be a small itchy area that will annoy you, or it can cover your whole body with giant red sores that will drive you nuts. Visit the rash Hall of Fame to see both mild and life-changing rashes. The poison ivy rash, even when not huge and ugly, can be one of the itchiest experiences a person will ever have. Many people have said that their bout with poison ivy was the single worst experience of their life.

How long does the oil stay active?

lawnmower with poison ivy in itThe plant oil, urushiol, is extremely stable and will stay active for many years in the right conditions, for example, on the underside of your lawnmower. You go to clean it out in the spring, forgetting that you used it in poison ivy last fall. And word is that a museum had 50-year old poison ivy samples which caused a rash when touched.

How can you clean clothes after poison ivy exposure?

guy doing laundryAll I can tell you is what I would do: If the clothes were not worth much, I would throw them away rather than worry about it. If I wanted to keep them, I would wash them – by themselves – with laundry detergent and with bleach if possible. I would then wash them again. But a friend of mine who clears poison ivy for a living, and is NOT immune, says that a single wash is all it takes. Tools and shoes can be cleaned with alcohol while wearing rubber gloves.

What is good about poison ivy?

birdBirds feed happily on the berries all through the winter. It holds the earth against erosion near the ocean and river banks. It has possible medical uses. We still understand little about the complex chemistry of nature. Someday, someone might discover an important human use for poison ivy and its cousins. In Japan, a similar plant yields enough urushiol oil to create lovely lacquer.

What are other good websites about poison ivy?

poison ivy images• Poison Ivy, Oak, Sumac Info Center,  the first info site!
• The American Academy of Dermatology and WebMD, The FDA, Kidshealth
• Here is a site with lots of good information, the Poison Ivy Tutorial.
• A site just about western Poison Oak.
• Lots of info at
• Wikipedia has many great articles: Poison Ivy. Poison Oak. Poison Sumac
• USDA maps: poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac
Informative blog post by Indigo Urgent Care
* Send other site suggestions via the contact page.

What are good books about poison ivy?

poison ivy and oak books Susan Carol Hauser's guide is a great all-around book.
The Thomas Anderson book has lots of great science and history.
The Sandra Baker book is another very good guide.