Itching to Scratch Some Poison Ivy!

August 10, 2010 | By | Comments (23)

Poison ivy

Introducing the Most Hated Plant in America, the plant that has caused more misery, embarrassment , and disfigurement than all of the quack plastic surgeons in Costa Rica put together. Poison ivy.

Poison ivy (Toxicondendron radicans) is a rampant vine native to much of the eastern U.S. So for all you dimwits out there who proclaim native plants are always better than exotics, I say go plant yourself a patch of this stuff and lay down in it for a nap. Hey, its leaves do turn a beautiful orange-red in the fall, so it has considerable ornamental value! Coincidentally, the insanely itchy rash you’ll develop all over your skin will be pretty much the same color.

Poison viy3

When I was a kid, my older brother, Ed, was deathly allergic to poison ivy. He couldn’t even walk within 50 feet of it without breaking out and screaming hysterically. Once, when he was about 14 or so, he got into some while we were visiting relatives. Blisters covered his whole right arm and they were oozing like a slug. He wrapped his arm with 3 thicknesses of paper towels. Within 10 minutes the towels were soaked.

It was at this strategic moment that my uncle, recognizing the affliction for what it was, pulled my brother aside and whispered, “Son, have you been doing something you’re afraid to tell your folks about?”

Ed’s first lesson on the perils of VD.

My parents finally took him to the doctor for a cortisone shot that cleared it up. Glad it wasn’t a penicillin shot — THAT would have been awkward.

The gross-out rash following contact with poison ivy (which I will NOT show here, as this is supposed to be a beautiful blog) is caused by an evil and very persistent oil called urushiol that is present in all parts of the plant. It can remain on uncleaned clothing for a year and still cause a rash upon new contact with skin. The best way to avoid the rash is to avoid the plant in the first place.

If you had a mother who cared about you, you probably remember her warning regarding poison ivy: “Leaflets three, let it be.”  Each poison ivy leaf (see photos above) is composed of three leaflets. Poison ivy is often confused with another native vine (shown below) that also turns red in fall called Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). But Virginia creeper has five leaflets, not three. Except for the fact that it’s an annoying weed, the latter vine is harmless.

Poison ivy 005

But how can you identify poison ivy in the winter, after it’s lost all of its leaves? Easy. Look closely at the trunk of the tree it’s climbing. Thousands of hairy, reddish-brown aerial roots (below) hold the poison ivy stem tightly to the tree bark. DON’T TOUCH THE STEM OR ROOTS. They contain urushiol and can give you poison ivy even in winter.

Poison ivy 006

Poison Ivy — Myth or Fact?

Poison ivy has afflicted people for so long that a lot of old wives tales surround it. Fortunately, you have me, the Grumpy Gardener, to infallibly separate myth from reality. Let’s examine the following beliefs.

“You can get poison ivy from your pet.”

FACT. If Goebbels, Barfy, or Fleabag has been romping through woods that’s filled with poison ivy, urushiol will get on their fur and then transfer to you when you pet them. So you either have to give them a good bath (wear rubber gloves) outdoors or resolve never to pet them again. Or you could pet them using a broom.

“You can get poison ivy from Superman.”

MYTH. Superman is a comic book character.

“You can get poison ivy from drinking milk from cows that ate poison ivy.”

MYTH. Think about it. If this were possible, you’d have gotten poison ivy this way already, because no farmer with cows in the field can supervise what all the cows eat. Urushiol does not come out in the milk.

“Poison ivy is contagious.”

MYTH. Look, we’re not talking smallpox here. Poison ivy is caused by an oil, not a virus. The only way to get it from a person is by touching the oil on their skin or clothing.

“Scratching poison ivy blisters spreads the rash.”

MYTH. The ooze that comes from the blisters is not urushiol, but the gunk your body produces as part of an allergic reaction. Only spreading the oil, not the ooze, can spread the rash.

“You can get poison ivy by burning poison ivy.”

FACT. If you burn dead or living poison ivy, urushiol will contaminate the smoke. If the smoke contacts your skin, you’ll get a rash. If you breathe in the smoke, you can suffer a horrible reaction all the way down to your lungs. So don’t burn it!

“Some people are immune to poison ivy.”

PROBABLE MYTH. I used to think I was immune as a kid, because my brother always it and I never did. When I was 20, though, and convinced of my invincibility, I tore poison ivy off of a tree with my bare hands. To my amazement, I developed an agonizing rash and have been sensitive to this day. Like other allergens, urushiol may not affect you at first, but each touch puts your immune system on alert. You never know when the next touch will set it off.

Preventing Poison Ivy Rash

Ivy block Like I said before, the best way to avoid a rash is to avoid the oil. Wear gloves, long sleeves, and long pants while working around poison ivy and then wash your clothes in detergent. As an alternative (or supplement), coat your skin with a product like Ivy Block or Ivy-Dry Defense before you venture outdoors. These non-prescription products block the oil from reaching your skin. Or you can choose to live your life inside a protective plastic bubble, like the famous Bubble Boy on “Seinfeld.” As we all know, he never once got poison ivy, although he did lose to George at “Trivial Pursuits.” In case you don’t remember, the correct answer was, “Moops.”


Treating Poison Ivy Once You’re Dumb Enough to Get It

OK, you have poison ivy. What are you gonna do to dry up the goo and stop the infernal itching? My mother used to smear Calamine lotion on the rash. As far as I could tell, Calamine is a pink placebo. You might as well smear on Pepto-Bismol.

Country remedies abound. One says that if you feed your goat poison ivy and then drink the goat’s milk, you’ll become immune. Of course, that assumes you have a goat….and poison ivy plants….and you’re not lactose-intolerant…and you have the IQ of a beaver.

Another remedy involves soaking a cotton ball in white vinegar, then dabbing it on the blisters five times a day. Reader Trisha Davenport Hardee says this worked like a charm for her husband, although “he smelled like salad dressing.”

Jewel 003 Sometimes when you’re out in the woods, you have to use whatever’s handy. That’s when you turn to an impatiens relative called jewel weed (Impatiens capensis).

You’ll know this plant by its pretty orange flowers (left). It grows in moist areas, often in association with poison ivy. So if you know you’ve touched poison ivy, grab some jewel weed, crush the stems, and smear the juice over the skin that was touched. It will stop the rash from forming. You can also use the juice to dry up an existing rash and relieve the itching. According to reports, the juice also relieves the irritation caused by contact with stinging nettles (Urtica dioica).

I have no evidence that jewel weed relieves the unbearable headaches one gets from listening to the incessant screaming on “The View,” but I’m willing to give it a shot.

Commercial Remedies

* Use Tecnu to quickly remove urushiol from the skin before a rash begins.

* Use Ivy-Dry Cream to dry up and relieve the itching of an existing rash.


  1. min

    “all you dimwits out there who proclaim native plants are always better than exotics, I say go plant yourself a patch of this stuff and lay down in it for a nap”

    wow. you’re kind of an ass. and mean. and ignorant. guess i’ll just avoid southern living in the future.

    September 3, 2015 at 7:38 am
  2. denise

    i hate to tell the idiot writer of this article but, Virginia Creeper is not a harmless plant! It can cause horrible blisters and severe itching!! All you have to do is google it. Right now, I personally am fighting the itchy horrible blistery rash because I made the mistake of weeding it out of my mothers flower bed!! Maybe you should have done your research before telling readers this plant is harmless!!

    August 17, 2015 at 10:20 pm
  3. Steve Bender


    Thanks for your kind comments.

    June 12, 2014 at 2:34 pm
  4. Benjamin

    Hey there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this
    post reminds me of my good old room mate! He always kept
    talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him.
    Fairly certain he will have a good read.
    Thank you for sharing!

    June 11, 2014 at 4:42 am

    Good summary on the dangers of poison ivy. I’ve always heard “leaves of three, let it be” not “leaflets three, let it be”. Maybe mine is the midwestern variation. Either way it’s a useful mnemonic.

    May 12, 2013 at 9:10 am
  6. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Thanks, goatee! Now where is my goat?

    July 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm
  7. goatee

    Just a side note on a very minor comment you made, suggesting not to drink goat milk if you are lactose intolerant. Fact is, although not yet completely understood, there is something different about goat milk such that it can be enjoyed by many people who cannot tolerate cow milk.

    July 4, 2012 at 1:06 am
  8. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Joe Jo,
    Urushiol from poison ivy stays on the skin unless you eat it. Only skin that contacts it directly develops a rash. Scratching the bumps spreads the rash only if they have urushiol on them. Washing the skin removes the urushiol.
    Poison ivy and mangoes are in the same family. Eating and handling mangoes poses no problem for the vast majority of people. However, severely allergic people may react.

    July 3, 2012 at 10:43 am
  9. Joe Jo

    Is the poison “urishol” spread throughout body in the blood and or only reactant to the area where the oil urishol came in contact with the body or is it a “type of dermatitis”can it “pop” up anywhere on you?
    also can it be spread by itching?
    If I eat mangos I feel really dizzy they contain urishol also is the poison existent in the fruit I know it’s on the stems?

    July 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm
  10. Joe Jo

    Is the poison “urishol” spread throughout body in the blood and or only reactant to the area where the oil urishol came in contact with the body or is it a “type of dermatitis”can it “pop” up anywhere on you?
    also can it be spread by itching?
    If I eat mangos I feel really dizzy they contain urishol also is the poison existent in the fruit I know it’s on the stems?

    July 1, 2012 at 6:14 pm
  11. Lbbaber

    The Native American comment is not true. My grandmother is 100% NA and I am covered in poison ivy as I type.

    June 21, 2012 at 9:29 am
  12. Sherri

    Virginia Creeper harmless? The predinisone shot I had and prednisone therapy I am on due to the horrible rash and itching it has caused beg to differ. Just like poison ivy, it can cause a reaction in some and not others. Poison Ivy does not bother me, but Virginia Creeper does. My brother on the other hand is the opposite. Same as yours; 50 feet from it and…wham! It is the oxalate crystals contained in the sap of the Virginia Creeper that can cause a reaction in some.

    November 9, 2010 at 6:29 am
  13. Phillip

    I’m like your brother and I usually get it every year no matter how careful I am. I’ve tried everything under the sun and the best product I would recommend is Zanfel. It is a granular type cream and as long as you apply it immediately after you’ve come in contact with it, it removes it 90% of the time.

    August 20, 2010 at 10:40 am
  14. LeighAnn

    Hey Grump, Please have those northerners mail some their weather down south! Every summer I teach and reteach the kids what poison ivy looks like. My kids teach their friends to the point of paranoia, but we are free of the itch. When my daughter got it in winter(!) zyrtec helped her maintain her sanity better than anything else; afterall, it’s 24 hr. medicine. Thanks for the clear pix.

    August 18, 2010 at 10:38 pm
  15. joey

    Thank you for the informative post and showing the difference between poison ivy and Virginia Creeper, another common nuisance around here too. Blessed to have never gotten the rash and like Cameron also have Native American on both sides of family … never heard that analogy. Got a crash course on ivy from our tree doctor (hubby & DIL very allergic) who did major 4 hour pruning, deadheading, and clearing through forest beds of ivy at our lake cottage in up north Michigan. Yes, he says, Tecnu does work if used soon enough after contact. (P.S. I will pass on the poison ivy lipstick 🙂

    August 17, 2010 at 3:00 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Grumpy answers all who ask.
    To the untrained eye (not mine, of course), poison oak and poison ivy look similar. However, poison oak is most often a shrub, not a vine (although it can be in shady locations). Its leaves are distinctly notched or lobed like an oak’s. Poison ivy is common in the East; poison oak in the West. Contact with either causes similar rashes.
    I doubt native American ancestry can prevent you from reacting. I heard the same thing about African Americans. People in general vary in their sensitivity and this sensitivity can change over time. If you want, I will send you some poison ivy lipstick to try out and report back on its effects.
    Anyone who doesn’t read “The Grumpy Gardener” deserves torment.

    August 12, 2010 at 1:27 pm
  17. esh

    Despite the negative human effects of poison ivy, it is an important source of food for many birds. And you’re right, it is gorgeous in the fall!

    August 12, 2010 at 11:06 am
  18. Henry H.

    I’m kinda right there with Cameron but a tad different. The only place I get it is on my hands. I can stand in a patch or walk through it with no problems. The only explanation I have for myself is that I can count the number of times Ive worn shoes in the last 10 years on my hands. I guess from the extended exposure here at work and at play by wearing flops it just doesnt affect my feet/legs anymore. Also is the same with ant bites. They don’t show up on my feet anymore either.
    And for my final demonstration of super-human strength………
    Jellyfish don’t sting me.
    Boo Boo…..
    Steve thank you for posting the pic of the Virg. Creeper and explaining the difference. My friends don’t frequent your blog so I can still throw that vine on em and see them freak out!!!!

    August 12, 2010 at 10:48 am
  19. cameron

    Lots of great information, delivered with such wit as to keep us from dozing off.
    I am one of those who has never gotten the rash. I grew up in the country, went fishing along poison ivy infested creeks, etc. I have it growing here in the woods and some has gotten into my garden. My son, the archaeologist, works in it often and his coworkers get covered and he doesn’t. We’ve been told it is because one of my great-great-grandmothers was Native American. Myth or fact?

    August 12, 2010 at 8:23 am
  20. Beth@UnskinnyBoppy

    You mean to tell me all this time that vine that I’ve been handling like a nuclear bomb in my garden is actually harmless VIRGINIA CREEPER??? I had no clue! Thank you so much for posting this. I obviously am a total dunce when it comes to IDing Poison Ivy. I had no clue that is what it looks like, even after tromping through the woods of Alabama my whole life. Geez…
    Question: Is Poison Oak the same stuff or does it look different?

    August 12, 2010 at 12:25 am
  21. UrsulaV

    Tecnu works a treat! The first year I moved to the south, and discovered that hairy vine I’d been ripping down by the handfuls was a Bad Thing, I bought a bottle of Tecnu and it kept me ivy free for the rest of the year.
    Mind you, the itching from that first exposure was more than enough…

    August 11, 2010 at 5:25 pm
  22. julianchandler

    We had a volunteer vine with three leaflets grow up a free-standing wall in front of our house a few years back. Although at first we thought it was poison ivy, we eventually determined that this plant was Virginia creeper, which often has only three leaflets when immature. Also, the Virginia creeper’s middle leaflet lacks the extra-long petiole that is found on poison ivy’s middle leaflet, which we have found to be a good way to tell them apart at this early stage.

    August 11, 2010 at 1:10 pm
  23. gardenwalkgardentalk

    Thank you for posting this funny but very informative post. So many people have no idea how to identify poison ivy. You photo on the aerial roots and explanation of the plant still producing urushiol will help many.

    August 10, 2010 at 7:53 pm

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