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 common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), 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)
  • How poison ivy differs from plants that have similar names or look like it
  • How to treat the rash, should you fail to avoid contact with the plant
  • How to get rid of a patch of poison ivy in your yard safely
  • 01 of 06

    Poison Ivy's Plant Parts: Pictures for Identification Help

    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.

    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 three, let it be!" 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 plant parts other than its 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.
  • 02 of 06

    Poison Ivy a Four-Season Menace

    Large poison ivy plant with fall colors.

    P A Collins/Getty Images 

    You may be most conscious of poison ivy during the good-weather months, but don't be lulled into a false sense of security: It's possible to get the rash at any time of year, even if you just brush up against one of those "dead-looking" vines that persist through the winter.

    Since poison ivy is a threat year-round, and since it has a different look in each of the four seasons, it's helpful to think of poison ivy almost as if it were four different plants:

    • Springtime poison ivy starts out with small leaves that have a bit of a reddish or orangey tinge.
    • Summertime poison ivy has bigger leaves that are green.
    • Fall's version of poison ivy is magnificent, with leaves in bright yellow, orange, or red colors.
    • Wintertime poison ivy is a just a bare vine, often with aerial roots hanging down.
  • 03 of 06

    Look-Alike Vine, Other Plants in the Rhus Genus

    Young leaves of poison ivy.
    Don't be fooled by impostors: This is what poison ivy really looks like. David Beaulieu

    A vine that beginners may confuse with poison ivy is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). 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.

  • 04 of 06

    A Product to Help You Identify Poison Ivy

    Poison ivy plant with red leaves in spring.
    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. 

    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    Jewelweed and Other Treatments for Poison Ivy Rash

    Orange jewelweed flower.
    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:

    • Put some rubbing alcohol on the patch of skin that made contact.
    • Rinse off the skin with water.
    • Apply soap and warm water to the area, washing thoroughly.
  • 06 of 06

    How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy Safely

    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.