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What is Poison Ivy?

By Stefanie Spikell
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Poison ivy is a vine or a shrub that is part of the cashew family. It is harmful, and it grows in many parts of the United states and southern Canada. This plant is usually seen twining around tree trunks or on the ground, although sometimes it grows bush-like. There are several species, including poison oak, which grows in the Pacific Northwest, and sumac, which grows in the eastern United States.

The tissues of these poisonous plants contain an oil, urushiol, that is similar to carbolic acid, which is extreme skin irritant. A person can become poisoned just by removing his or her shoes after walking through poison ivy, or it can be contracted from other people — but only if the oil stays on their skin. Remember, it is not the skin eruption that causes the infection, but the oil from the plant.

If someone comes into contact with the plant, wash the skin thoroughly, hopefully to prevent the oil from penetrating and infecting the skin, thereby causing a rash. If blisters do appear, they will be itchy and can be treated them with calamine lotion, Epsom salts, or bicarbonate of soda. There is a vaccine that can be taken by injection or orally; as with most vaccines, it must be administered before the person encounters the plant.

Poison ivy can be identified fairly easily. Its leaves are red in early spring, then change to a shiny green. They turn yellow, red, or orange in the fall.

Each leaf is made up of three leaflets that have notched edges. Two of the leaflets make a pair, and the third leaf stands alone at the tip of the stalk. There are small green flowers that grow in bunches on the main stem close to where the leaves join. In the late season, poisonous berries appear. They are white and have a waxy look.

Poison ivy and oak are very common. It is hard to eradicate them through chemical spraying or other means.

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Discussion Comments
By Nana48 — On Jun 13, 2013

To stop the intense itching so you can sleep, hold the affected area under water as hot as you can stand it, for about 45 seconds. This releases the histamines. It lasts for about five hours and you will have to do it again, but this is a life saver. I thought I was pulling up honeysuckle vines in the spring a few years ago and later found out it was poison ivy vines. I had blisters on the inside of both arms from my wrists to my elbows.

By anon265978 — On May 03, 2012

You can also get poison ivy by inhaling it. If someone is burning brush and poison ivy or poison oak is in the burning brush, the wind can carry the ash with the oil on it and anyone within the vicinity allergic to poison ivy/oak can become quite infected from it.

By anon154400 — On Feb 20, 2011

To jabuka-Not true. If the rash is oozing the clear, yellowish oil, it can be spread.

By anon116478 — On Oct 06, 2010

Thank God I have found someone who knows the name of the Poison Oak vaccine. thank you. Do you know where you can get it? Or a pharmacy that carries it if you get a script?

By anon86553 — On May 25, 2010

i have finally found a website that at least acknowledges the existence of a poison ivy vaccine; believe it or not, there are a number of websites that say there is not any.

I personally know better because i know people who have had the vaccine and i can vouch for it, the stuff really works! i have seen people vaccinated with the poison ivy shot(rhus tox is the name of it) and pull poison ivy bare handed! my advice to all outdoors people is to talk to your doctor about this vaccine but to still not pull poison ivy bare handed.

Sincerely, a horticulturist in the know

By jabuka — On Jan 05, 2009

The rash of poison ivy is not contagious. You can get the rash only by getting in contact with the oil of the plant.

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