Poison Ivy Facts

From What the Vine Looks Like to How to Get Rid of It

Poison ivy (Rhus radicans), along with deer ticks, mosquitoes, and allergies caused by such plants as ragweed, is one of the banes of existence for lovers of the outdoors. Learn the facts you need to know to deal successfully with this weed

  • What poison ivy looks like (so you can avoid stepping in it)
  • Failing that, how to treat the rash
  • How to get rid of a patch of poison ivy in your yard
  • How poison ivy differs from plants that have similar names or look like it
  • 01 of 05
    Picture of poison ivy climbing a clapboard-sided house.
    David Beaulieu

    Unfortunately, trying to identify poison ivy is like trying to hit a moving target. A young vine will look markedly different from an older vine, and the plant's leaves do not always look exactly the same. Furthermore, while you have to beware coming into contact with poison ivy during the spring, summer, fall, and winter (even in cold climates), the vine appears in a different guise in each of the four seasons.

    Thus the need to learn what the vine looks like in all its various guises. You will never become adept at identifying this weed simply by relying on the "leaflets of three" rhyme because leaves will not always be present on the plant, plus there are other plants that bear three leaflets. So learn how to identify poison ivy based on characteristics other than the appearance of its summer leaves:

    • The plant produces clusters of small, greenish-white flowers.
    • It bears berries that are a dull white in color.
    • Older vines display roots that dangle down off the stem, in mid-air, giving them a hairy appearance.
    • While the summer leaves are green, they start out red in spring, then change again in fall to yellow, orange, or red.
  • 02 of 05
    Poison ivy (image) has red leaves in spring. The weed looks different as year progresses.
    David Beaulieu

    There is a product you can buy that will give you a little extra help in identifying the vine. This product is the "Ivy Alert" patch. You can wear it on a boot, for example, and it can warn you if you have come into contact with urushiol, the active irritant principle contained in poison ivy. The idea is that, after receiving the warning, you could then go indoors and wash off adjacent skin surfaces.

    Since this patch is not foolproof, use it mainly as a learning tool. Once you have become good enough at identifying poison ivy, you should not need to wear the patch anymore. 

  • 03 of 05
    A type of impatiens hardy in the North, jewelweed (image) is a poison ivy salve. Crush the leaves.
    David Beaulieu

    Even if you know what poison ivy looks like, and even if you go to great lengths to avoid contact with it, you may still brush up against some poison ivy accidentally and come down with the rash. That is why there is still a need to learn the facts about treating the rash. 

    There are products that you can buy (such as hydrocortisones) to treat poison ivy rash, plus prescriptions you can get from a doctor (such as Diphenhydramine). But those who prefer natural remedies may want to use jewelweed, a type of wild impatiens.

    But it may not come to that if you can take proper action quickly enough. As soon as you suspect that your skin has come into contact with poison ivy, you should:

    1. Put some rubbing alcohol on the patch of skin that made contact.
    2. Rinse off the skin with water.
    3. Apply soap and warm water to the area, washing thoroughly.
  • 04 of 05
    White berries of poison ivy.
    David Beaulieu

    Once you are confident that you know what poison ivy looks like, you may wish to proceed to the next step: safely removing any poison ivy that may be growing in your landscape. Getting rid of poison ivy may be easier than avoiding it. Problem is, removing it means coming into contact with the vine, which is hardly a pleasant thought:

    • If you are not against using herbicides, buy Ortho's Brush-B-Gon or a similar product ahead of time.
    • Have pruners and garbage bags handy.
    • Pick a dry day with no wind for the operation.
    • Wear protective clothing and gear.
    • Cut the vines cleanly rather than tearing them out. Bag up what you cut and dispose of the bags.
    • Apply herbicide to whatever is left of the poison ivy (stubs of the stems you cut, exposed roots, etc.).
    • Disinfect your clothing and tools afterward.
    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05
    Poison ivy leaf with three leaflets.
    David Beaulieu

    A vine that beginners may confuse with poison ivy is Virginia creeper. While it does sometimes have three leaves, it usually bears five. Moreover, its berries are blue. You may also wonder what poison oak and poison sumac have to do with poison ivy. Both of these noxious weeds belong, like poison ivy, to the Rhus genus (sometimes given as Toxicodendron): They are classified as Rhus diversilobum and Rhus vernix, respectively. But Rhus vernix looks nothing like poison ivy, being a tall shrub. Rhus diversilobum is more similar in appearance to poison ivy, but the two plants are usually found in different places. If you live on the West Coast of the United States, then it is Rhus diversilobum that you have to worry about. In most other areas of the U.S., it is poison ivy that is the problem.