How to identify, avoid, and treat poison ivy

There’s no way around it, poison ivy is the absolute worst. For those who are highly allergic, a bout with poison ivy is a pus-filled, itchy, and painful experience that can last for weeks. It’ll have you running for the plant-free confines of the concrete jungle. But a little education goes a long way in preventing it.

Why is poison ivy so evil?

Poison ivy contains urushiol oil, which about half the population is allergic to. Even in the winter, the leaves of the plant contain this oil and it can be absorbed by your skin, leading to eczematous contact dermatitis. Reactions differ depending on how allergic you are, or how much oil you come into contact with.

This oil can stick to your shoes, your clothes, your bike tires, just about anything that it comes into contact with. Meaning that later on, when you’re tying your shoelaces, you could suffer from poison ivy.

Reactions can be mild to severe and can last as long as five weeks. The affected area will become red, rashy and swollen and in time, weeping blisters will form.

The blisters from poison ivy will continue to contain the oil and can lead to further irritation and lesions. Ingestion of the plant through smoke caused by burning the plant, or through eating it (don’t do it!), can cause severe reaction in your throat, stomach and lungs.

How to identify poison ivy

Poison ivy is actually tricky to identify, as it looks like so many other plants. So how do you find it? Well the general rule is, “leaves of three, let it be.” That’s pretty solid advice, but there are plenty of three-leaved plants that are not poison ivy. The middle leaf of poison ivy is always a little larger than the two lateral leaves, and it sticks out a bit farther than the others on the stem. The leaves are also generally shiny.

Poison ivy likes to grow on the edge of the forest, along fences or stone walls. It usually sticks pretty close to the ground, although occasionally it will grow up walls, trees, or fences.

If you’re not sure whether you’re looking at poison ivy, you could try using an app like Bewilderness to help guide you, or just stay away from the plant to be sure.

How to prevent getting poison ivy

Obviously, the best way to avoid an allergic reaction to poison ivy is to not go near it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t go into the woods. Now that you know what it looks like, you can do your best to avoid it when waking through low-lying, leafy vegetation. Long pants and covered shoes will also minimize direct skin contact with the plant.

Awareness is everything so if you can avoid it completely you’ve got nothing to worry about. Of course, there are times when you’re in the woods at night, or being chased by a bear, that you just can’t take the time to ID every plant you walk through. So if you do happen to stand in a patch of poison ivy, a few ways to minimize its impact are below.

How to treat poison ivy

So you touched poison ivy. If you can wash it off within the next ten minutes, you’ll be fine. Because the irritant is an oil, you’ll need soap to get rid of it. Sunlight is a common remedy, so if you can get to some in time, do it.

If you can’t get to the soap in time, then you may start developing a rash within 24-72 hours. From that point, your course of action will depend on how severe your reaction is. If you know you’re severely allergic, your doctor could give you a cortisone shot. Or for less severe reactions, oatmeal baths, calamine lotion, and not scratching can speed up the recovery process. Zanfel is an over-the-counter product aimed at poison ivy rashes specifically, although reviews say that it does relieve itching but doesn’t reduce swelling.