When it comes to summer traditions and rites of passage, you might think of watching baseball, catching fireflies and lazing on the beach. Many of us jump to outdoor activities, like camping or hiking. The only problem? Some of these quintessential summer activities come with a few potential downsides, including sunburns and running into poison ivy.
According to the American Skin Association, poison ivy reactions are the most common allergic reaction in the United States — one that affects 50,000,000 Americans annually. Not sure how to deal with the plant or its infamous rash? Here’s everything you need to know when it comes to encountering poison ivy this summer.
How Can You Recognize Poison Ivy?
Poison ivy is a plant found on every continent and in every American state except Hawai’i and Alaska. You’re most likely to find poison ivy and its relatives-of-sorts, poison oak and poison sumac, in wooded and marshy areas. Odd as it might seem, the plants themselves aren’t actually poisonous, but they all contain a sticky oil called urushiol — and it’s this urushiol that’s the culprit when it comes to that infamous itchy, blistering skin rash. It doesn’t take much oil to cause a several rash; just brushing up against the plant can transfer urushiol from the plant to your skin.
One key to recognizing and identifying poison ivy is to remember the phrase “leaves of three, let it be.” Poison ivy always has three pointy, smooth-surfaced leaves. One leaf is clearly centered and points upwards while the other two leaves tend to point off to the sides. The leaves of a poison ivy plant are shiny and have smooth or slightly notched edges. The stems of a poison ivy plant are reddish and have no thorns.
Like poison ivy, poison oak grows as a shrub or a vine. While poison oak is similar in appearance to poison ivy, it has larger and more rounded leaves — not totally unlike the leaves of an oak tree — with a hairy, textured surface. The leaves of poison oak come in groups of three, five or seven. Finally, poison sumac is a shrub or tree with leaves that come in clusters of seven to 13 leaves arranged in pairs on either side of a single stem, with a single leaf standing alone on the very end of the stem.
How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy Plants
1. Dig the Plants Out of Your Yard
The most effective way to eliminate poison ivy from your property is to physically remove the plants themselves from your land. While wearing long sleeves, gloves, long pants and closed-toed shoes, pull or dig the entire plant out of the ground. Keep in mind that poison ivy can appear as an ivy, meaning it may enter the ground far from where you notice the leaves.
Carefully trace the stems back to the roots, gather up all leaves and stems, and dig out all roots thoroughly. Don’t just snap off the roots; they’ll produce new plants. Once you’re done, bag all the material and throw it all away. Don’t compost it or burn it — after all, you don’t want to encounter the oils again later.
2. Use Chemical Herbicides
More and more people are reluctant to use chemical herbicides in their yards and gardens and on their property due to environmental concerns. When it comes to managing poison ivy, though, consider making an exception. While using chemical herbicides is not the most environmentally friendly option for dealing with poison ivy, commercial herbicides are highly effective — especially if you’re dealing with poison ivy over a large area. Chemical herbicides containing glyphosate are especially effective against poison ivy because these poisons reach poison ivy’s complex system of roots.
Clemson University’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences provides a very useful discussion of chemical herbicides to help determine which is best to kill poison ivy. Clemson’s list of products includes:
- Ortho GroundClear Poison Ivy & Tough Brush Killer
- BioAdvanced Brush Killer Plus Ready-Top-Use
- Roundup Ready-to-Use Poison Ivy Plus Tough Brush Killer
- Super Concentrate Killzall Weed & Grass Killer
- Zep Enforcer Weed Defeat
When using any chemical product, be sure to follow all provided instructions to the letter.
3. Make (and Use) Homemade Poison Ivy Killer
If you’d prefer to use a DIY poison ivy killer, try the following combination: Dissolve one cup of salt in a combination of one tablespoon of white vinegar, one tablespoon of dish soap and one gallon of water. Pour the mixture — it’ll be soapy, so don’t be surprised — into a clean spray bottle from a hardware store and soak the entire poison ivy plant with the potion. Better still, do this, and then, once the plant is dead, follow the above instructions for digging it out safely.
What Can You Do About a Poison Ivy Rash?
If you get urushiol on your skin — whether from poison ivy, poison sumac or poison oak — you’ll develop three types of symptoms within minutes, hours or days. The unholy trinity of poison ivy exposure symptoms is itchiness, followed by a red rash and then blisters. When it comes to the best treatments for poison ivy, you have homemade and store-bought options. Store-bought remedies for a poison ivy-related rash include topical calamine lotions, hydrocortisone creams and oral antihistamines.
If you’d prefer a home remedy for dealing with your poison ivy rash, try apple cider vinegar in one of the following ways1:
- Use apple cider vinegar as an astringent by soaking a cotton ball in a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar. (You can also use a half-and-half mix of water and apple cider vinegar.) Press the vinegar-soaked cotton ball against your rash three to four times daily. This has been touted as helpful for itchiness, but don’t try it if blisters have developed.
- Try a wet vinegar compress to soothe itching and swelling. To make a compress, combine equal amounts of cool water and apple cider vinegar in a clean bowl or jar. Soak a clean cloth or rag in that combination, then lay that vinegar-soaked cloth on your rash for 15 minutes to half an hour. Repeat the process a few times a day, but be sure to use a clean rag every time that you do.
- Make a vinegar spray if you’d rather not use cotton balls or rags (or don’t have any on hand). Simply combine equal amounts of apple cider vinegar and water and pour the mix into a clean spray bottle. Don’t use a spray bottle that was used for cleaning products. Use a clean one. Simply spray the mixture onto your rash several times daily.
- Many people tout the merits of witch hazel, a paste of baking soda (three parts) and water (one part), aloe vera gels, chamomile and eucalyptus essential oils, and even cucumber slices to provide relief from the itchiness and swelling associated with poison ivy-related rashes, too.
1 Editor’s Note: Be sure to first wash your skin with soap and cool or lukewarm (that is, not hot) water immediately after being exposed to urushiol.
- “Poison Ivy, Sumac and Oak” via American Skin Association
- “Poison Ivy Rash” via Mayo Clinic
- “Summer Skin Rashes” (slideshow) via Mayo Clinic
- “Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac: Who Gets a Rash, and Is It Contagious?” via American Academy of Dermatology Association
- “Outsmarting Poison Ivy and Other Poisonous Plants” via U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
- “Poison Ivy” via Home & Garden Information Center | Clemson University: College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences
- “How to Kill Poison Ivy” via HGTV
- “6 Tips For Removing Poison Ivy” via Farmers’ Almanac