Poison Ivy

What is it?
First Aid
Poison ivy in the fall
Poison ivy turns red or orange in the fall. Maine.gov photo

What is poison ivy?

Poison ivy is a plant that grows throughout the United States except in the Southwest, Hawaii and Alaska. It can grow as a vine, a shrub or ground cover and has shiny leaflets with smooth or toothed edges that grow in groups of three. The leaves are reddish in the spring, green in the summer, and orange, red, yellow or bronze in the fall. They may also have greenish-white flowers and whitish-yellow berries.

The oily resin of the poison ivy plant, known as urushiol, causes an allergic reaction in most people and can sometimes cause severe symptoms when touched or breathed in. The oil is found year round in all parts of the poison ivy plant, including the roots, stems, flowers and leaves.

Poison ivy oil can stay on almost any surface, such as clothing or camping gear, until it is washed off with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. If it’s not washed off, it can even remain for years.

What symptoms does poison ivy cause?

Touching the oil of the poison ivy plant can cause a very irritating rash. This can come from directly touching the plant or from touching other items that came in contact with it, such as sporting or camping equipment, gardening tools, shoes, clothes or pet fur.

It can take up to two days for the rash to develop if you’ve had a reaction before, or up to two weeks if you haven’t. The reaction usually starts with itching, redness and swelling and sometimes is followed by tiny pimples or blisters.

The rash from poison ivy cannot spread from person to person because the rash itself, including any pimples or blisters, does not contain poison ivy oil.

Burning poison ivy can make smoke that irritates the eyes, skin, nose and throat and makes breathing difficult. These symptoms can be severe.

What should I do if I’ve touched poison ivy?

If you have touched poison ivy or another item that has poison ivy oil on it:

  • Wash the affected area within 15 minutes using cool water and soap. Be sure to wash under your fingernails.

If you’ve gotten a rash from poison ivy:

  • The rash, blisters and itching will go away on their own within several weeks without any treatment.
  • Avoid scratching the blisters. Bacteria from your fingernails can cause an infection. You can decrease the itchy feeling by:
    • Putting a wet towel on the rash or soaking the area in cool water
    • Applying calamine lotion or zinc oxide cream to dry the oozing from the rash
  • See your health care provider if:
    • You have had a severe reaction to poison ivy in the past
    • The rash affects your eyes, mouth, genital area or covers a very large part of your body
    • You have a temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit
    • The rash has pus, soft yellow scabs or tenderness
    • The itch gets worse or keeps you awake at night
    • The rash lasts longer than a few weeks

If you breathe in smoke from burning poison ivy and have swelling in your throat, difficulty breathing, dizziness or weakness call 911.

If you have questions about poison ivy, call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222, chat online or text POISON to 85511. The poison center can also help you determine whether you need to contact your doctor or visit the emergency department.

How can I prevent a poison ivy rash?

  • Learn to recognize poison ivy and avoid it.
  • Wear long pants, long sleeves, socks, closed shoes, and a hat when walking in areas with poison ivy.
  • Wash your skin with cool water and soap as soon as you come in contact with poison ivy. The sooner you clean the skin, the more likely it is you will get off all the poison ivy oil in time to prevent a rash.
  • Wash contaminated surfaces such as garden tools or gloves with rubbing alcohol or hot water and soap.
  • Wash your pet if they have brushed up against poison ivy. Use pet shampoo and water. Most pets are not sensitive to poison ivy, but the oil can stick to their fur and cause a rash if a person pets them.
  • If you are removing poison ivy:
    • Wear vinyl gloves—not rubber gloves. Poison ivy oil can get through rubber.
    • Place uprooted poison ivy plants in a sturdy, leak-proof trash bag and dispose of it as you normally would other trash. Do not burn poison ivy plants.

Last Updated: Monday August 15th 2016