How to keep poison ivy from ruining your summer

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Growing up the daughter of two scout leaders, I always knew how to avoid poison ivy. As a toddler, I did traipse through some poison oak and then proceeded to rub it all over my mom’s legs while I was sitting on her lap. I escaped unscathed, but she never let me forget it!

Everyone has heard the line, “leaves of three, let it be,” but do you know what else to look for? Did you know it can also come in the form of a vine not just on the forest floor?

We’ll help you understand how to check for poison ivy and also spot poison oak and sumac. And if you happen to accidentally come into contact with these itch-inducing plants, we’ll give you tips for treating it fast. You can thank us later!


Where Are Poison Ivy, Sumac and Oak Found?

There are actually two types of poison ivy, eastern (also called common) and western. Together they cover the majority of North America (except for the very edge of the West Coast, Alaska and Hawaii).

Poison oak also has two types (Atlantic and Pacific). Atlantic poison oak extends from New Jersey down through Florida and west to Texas. Pacific poison oak covers Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.

Poison sumac is not as widespread and is found from the east coast to as far west as Texas and as far northwest as Minnesota.

What It Looks Like

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy comes in three forms: herbs (basically a flowering non-woody plant), shrubs (a full size or dwarf plant with woody stems) and vines (climbing up a tree or on the ground). The leaves are pointed and green, and can be glossy in the early summer.

You’re most likely to encounter it with green leaves, but be aware that poison ivy changes colors with the seasons. In the spring it can be reddish with small flowers and in the fall it can be a yellowish orange with white or cream berries.

“Leaves of three” is an accurate saying, as it does have one large leaf and two smaller leaves on either side. It also never grows with two sets of three leaves side by side on a stem or vine, only left then right with some space between the two sets of leaves, vertically.

poison ivy plant photo
Flickr | antoniseb

Poison Oak

Like poison ivy, poison oak can grow as a shrub, herb or vine. The Pacific variety is usually only seen as a shrub or vine. It likes to grow in drier, sandier areas. Poison oak also almost always has “leaves of three” that grow from left to right.

The leaves can sometimes resemble the look of an oak leaf with fewer smooth edges or points, but many times it actually looks remarkably similar to poison ivy. The leaf shape can vary even on the same plant!

One of the only ways you can tell the difference between eastern poison ivy and Atlantic poison oak is that the poison oak has fuzzy berries. The results are the same, so steer clear either way!

poison oak photo
Flickr | mmmavocado

Poison Sumac

Not as common as the other two, poison sumac is usually found as a small tree or shrub in very wet or muddy areas. It also looks quite different, with bright red stems, and lighter green leaves resembling feathers that grow side by side.

Poison sumac also has berries that typically stay green through the summer and turn white in the fall. The leaves also turn a variety of beautiful colors in the fall, including red, yellow, orange and even pink! But don’t be fooled by it’s beauty, because every part of this plant is poisonous.

poison sumac photo
Flickr | Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos

If you’re still concerned about spotting these tricky plants there are actually a number of plant identification apps that can help you confirm. Always better to be safe than sorry!

How To Safely Eliminate It From Your Yard

If you’ve discovered any of these poisonous plants on your property be sure to take precautions when removing them. If you have a large problem it may be worth hiring a professional service.

What To Do:

  • Keep your skin covered. Wear long sleeves, pants and thick gloves. You may even want to use a disposable jumpsuit.
  • Add another layer of protection by using plastic bags to pull and wrap up plants you are removing.
  • Wear goggles or protectives glasses if you will be cutting through any vines, roots or stems that could ooze sap.
  • Get the plant out at the root. If any root is left the plant can grow back.
  • Check with rules in your area for disposal. Some areas prefer you not dispose of poison ivy in lawn and leaf bags.
  • Use an unused area of your property where you can toss or bury dead plants, if you have one.
  • Carefully use an herbicide if you have a lot of it to get rid of or roots are too deep.
  • Generously spray yourself and all of your tools, clothes and shoes with cold water when you’re done. You can use soap and lukewarm water only after you rinse.
  • Wash all clothes throughly if not just disposing of them.

What To Avoid Doing:

  • Don’t burn anything you pull up, as it will release poisonous oil into the air.
  • Don’t use a weed whacker to remove the plants. This could spray poisonous sap around.
  • Don’t spray herbicide on a vine that is climbing up a tree. You may harm the tree. Instead, apply herbicide directly to the vine.
  • Don’t use herbicide on a windy day or if rain is predicted in the next 24 hours. The herbicide will not stay where you want it to!
  • Don’t wash skin with hot water or soap before rinsing thoroughly with cold water. Hot water opens your pores and could let sap or oil enter your skin.

poison ivy hand photo
Flickr | Ryan Speth

How To Treat The Itch

A rash from poison ivy, oak or sumac is caused by an oil found in the plants called urushiol. Wherever the oil touches your skin can become an itchy, blistered rash. It can usually be treated at home, but if you have rashes on a large portion of your body, experience a lot of swelling and blistering or you have trouble breathing or swallowing you should seek medical attention right away.

To treat your rash at home, try some of these tips from the American Academy of Dermatology:

  • Clean off everything that came into contact with the plant oils, including garden tools, clothes, shoes, leashes, animals and yourself. Start with cold water to rinse it off and then use lukewarm water and soap. If you do it quick and carefully enough, this may remove the danger before it has the chance to cause the rash.
  • As hard as it can be, leave blisters alone and don’t scratch them. Broken skin can be a haven for infection.
  • Take short, cool baths or showers. If taking a bath, consider a colloidal oatmeal treatment to ease itching. These can be found at virtually any drug store.
  • Apply a cool washcloth to itchy skin.
  • Try over-the-counter remedies like calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream and antihistamines.

As always, if your rash does not get better in 10 days, or you think it may be infected, see a doctor who will be able to prescribe medication to treat the itch and infection.

Be Vigilant

Make sure you and your family are on the lookout for these poisonous plants when enjoying the summer sun out in your yard. And pay special attention while gardening, trimming trees, camping or hiking. They may just be lurking in places you don’t expect!

Have you had an issues with poison ivy, oak or sumac in your yard this year?