Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac: All About the Itch

Poison ivy, seen close up
Poison ivy. (DepositPhotos)

If you enjoy working or playing outdoors, chances are you’ve come in contact with either poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. And if you’re like me, you’ve likely experienced the irritating rash that comes from handling these poisonous plants. Here are some tips for identifying, removing, and coping with poison ivy and its relatives in the lawn and garden.

Identifying Poisonous Plants

Poison ivy, seen climbing against a house
Poison ivy growing against a wall. (DepositPhotos)

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac are commonly found in woodland areas, naturalized beds, river banks, and growing up trees, but they also can show up in the most manicured of gardens. They all have temptingly colorful foliage in the fall, and offer the same allergic reaction when handled or cut. Poison ivy and oak have similar growth patterns while poison sumac is a bit different.

The adage “Leaves of Three, Let It Be” is actually a good suggestion. Poison oak and ivy are master imitators, taking on the leaf shape of the plants around them and making them difficult to identify. The three-leaf pattern gives them away, so you’re safer staying away from any three-leafed plant unless you’re sure it isn’t poisonous.

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

Poison oak. (Joshuanichols, Pixabay)

Poison ivy is a climbing or sprawling vine that can also grow upright. It has three broad leaves at the end of each stem, either straight or slightly lobed, with greenish-white flowers and small white berries in summer, along with hairy-looking roots attaching it to trees that give it away in the winter when the leaves are not present. Older leaves often have a slight distinctive lobe along the edges.

Like poison ivy, poison oak usually has a cluster of three broad leaves, though it can have up to seven. The leaves tend to be glossy, and the plant grows upright.Western poison oak has lobed leaflets like an oak tree, while eastern poison oak is more like a glossy version of poison ivy.

Poison oak and poison ivy can be difficult to tell apart, and the leaf shape varies from region to region. For help identifying them, check with your local agricultural extension service, or go to Poison Oak Photos and Poison Ivy (about.com).

Poison Sumac

poison sumac
Poison sumac. (monika1607, Pixabay)

Poison sumac is an upright shrubby plant with long, arching stems with up to 13 smooth, feather-shaped leaflets along each stem. The red stem distinguishes poison sumac from other types of sumac. It tends to grow in wet areas such as creek beds, swamplands, and coastal areas. It’s more common in the coastal southeast but can grow in boggy woodlands. For help identifying this plant, check out these Poison Sumac Pictures (about.com).

Two Innocent Bystanders

virginia creeper
Virginia creeper (_Alicja_, Pixabay)

Virginia creeper is a common woodland plant that is frequently mistaken for poison ivy. It has five feather-shaped leaves and isn’t poisonous. However, if you’re in an area where Virginia creeper grows, there’s a good chance poison ivy is nearby!

Kudzu is another aggressive, nonpoisonous vine with a suspicious three-leafed pattern. Its leaves are larger and smoother than poison ivy, but again, they frequently grow in the same area.

Facts About Poison Exposure

First aid kit
Urushiol is an oily poison that is comparable to super glue, so having a first aid kit could be beneficial. (©showcake – stock.adobe.com)

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac contain a toxic oil called urushiol. When the plants are touched, this oil can be released onto the skin.

Every part of the plant is poisonous, even if the plant is dead.

The oil can best be compared to Super Glue. It sticks to your skin and penetrates within 30 minutes. Once it’s bonded, it isn’t coming off until the itchy rash finally sloughs off the toxins over a period of days or weeks, helped along by the miserable scratching of its victim.

As irritating and uncomfortable as the rash may be, even more dangerous reactions can occur from breathing or ingesting the chemical, particularly when the plants are burned.

The most common means of exposure are from touching or pulling the plants, but you can also be exposed when lawn mowers throw the oils into the air, or through an intermediary, like pets who’ve brushed up against the plants.

The poison ivy rash is not contagious and does not spread by breaking the blisters. It only spreads through contact with the actual plant oil, although rashes can worsen over time, so it feels like it’s spreading.

Getting Rid of Poisonous Plants

Man pulls up roots in backyard with a spade
The best way to get rid of these undesirable plants is to directly dig or pull them out of the ground. (DepositPhotos)

Hand pulling: The most effective way to get rid of poison ivy/oak/sumac is to pull or dig it up, but most of us are too sensitive to do this without getting infected. Work carefully when the ground is soft and wet, to have a better chance of getting all the roots.

Smothering: Another organic method involves cutting the vines close to the ground, then smothering them with plastic, newspaper, or carpet scraps. This can be a way to sterilize large areas but takes a long time to work.

Chemical herbicides: Glyphosate works fairly well, or you can try stronger “brush killers” containing triclopyr and 2,4-D. Herbicides can be sprayed or painted on the foliage, or painted on the cut ends of larger vines. They may need to be reapplied to make sure it’s all gone. For best results, use herbicides when the plants are fully leafed out in spring and summer, and make sure to target the plants on a non-windy day.

Tips for Working Around Poisonous Plants

Gloved hands planting spring plants in the garden
Wearing protective gloves when working in your garden to limit your exposure to poison ivy, oak, and sumac. (©maryviolet, Adobe Stock Photos)

If you’re working around poisonous plants, wear gloves and long clothing to prevent skin exposure.

Train yourself not to wipe your brow or otherwise touch your skin with your gloves!

Immediately after exposure, scrub skin thoroughly with plenty of soap and cool water, or with an urushiol-removing soap such as Tecnu.

Wash clothes and gloves, immediately after use, in hot water with regular detergent.

Further Information


  1. what are some of the symptons you get if you have burned poison ivy and may have ingested it? can it get into your lungs? what if you have asthma

  2. Tell people about pulling on kudzu vines. I got blisters on my hands after pulling on it. Does it contain urushiol, and can you spread it by shaking hands with someone? How long does the rash last? What causes the rash?

  3. I had a large tree taken down two weeks ago, and attached to it were two large poison oak vines (one close to wrist-thick, the other a little thinner). I took all necessary precautions (long clothing, gloves, etc) and just got finished removing the vines from the tree (took a very hot shower with dawn and am washing the clothes now). My question is, how long should I wait before I cut the tree into pieces with my chainwas for eventual use as firewood? Thanks!

  4. Um well, i went to wrok last weekend and im cutting down vines for this lady… 70 daller job wich i have to finish this week also but ever since then ive had a rash and alot of itching…. so i looked it up on here and u guys says it supposed to have hiary things n it and goes up a tree….. well i was ripping that stuff off by hand and lets just say i got it pretty bad……. thanks for the input though now i know wat it looks like and not to touch it

  5. I have learned from past experience and trips to the ER what to avoid when it comes to the poison ivy,oak,sumac. I also have learned what each looks like and what to use to treat it. I use an old fashion laundry soap and it works. Using it in the shower with cool to warm water for 15 minutes does the trick. The old fashion laundry soap is inexpensive and readily found at hardware/grocery stores.Main thing is to wash and discard any clothes that can not be washed such as gloves!I live in the country 28 years and it is all around us.

  6. Poison Ivy is probably the most common in North America. It is fairly easy to identify, but the leaflets can be very small or very large and can take many different forms, from smooth round to serrated and lobed. It is actually not 3 leaves; what you are seeing is one leaf with 3 leaflets. Compound leaves have buds at their attachments, yet the leaflets do not. The long stem at the base of the leaf is called a petiole, but the individual stems connecting the leaflets are petiolules. Poison ivy will always have 3 leaflets. The two leaflets on the sides with have short petiolules, while the center leaflet will have a very long petiolule. This is important because Virginia creeper (the closest look-alike) does not have that long center petiolule; additionally, Virginia creeper can have leaves with only 3 leaflets, but generally has 5-7 leaflets on leaves on the same stem. So, if you are not sure, look at the attachments of the leaves, count the leaflets, and look for that long exaggerated center petiolule. But be careful because these two plants tend to grow in the same environments and will cohabitate. Urushiol is some bad stuff and can get into your body many different ways, including contact with skin, ingestion, or inhalation (breathing smoke from a fire with the poison in it). And identifying these plants can be very tricky in the winter when there are no leaflets present. There are some products that can help the itch, but if it becomes unbearable, your doctor can prescribe some oral steroids that work quickly. And if you are interested in using herbicides to get rid of pest plants on your property, be sure to read the label. These companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars just to get a label approved, so don’t think you are going to reinvent the wheel in your back yard. Additionally, it is a violation of state and federal law to apply not in accordance with the label. For products like Round-Up (Glyohosate), they are designed to be absorbed through the leaf in the photosynthetic process and translocate through the plant into the root system; that is why it takes days or weeks to work. If you mix “Double Strength,” you may see the plants die quicker, but they wll be back because the root system is still alive. More is not always better. If you mix properly, you will save money, do a better job at pest control, do less harm to the environment, and avoid fines or jail time. This is why you see more and more RTU (Ready-To-Use) products sold at big box stores. It is not generally the farmer or spray service that is overapplying, but the average homeowner. I hope this helps.

    * ISA Certified Arborist
    * Alabama State Licensed:
    – Tree Surgeon
    – Landscape Designer
    – Landscape Contractor
    – Pest Control Supervisor

    Chris Francis Landscapes

  7. Poison ivy sucks…. I’ve had it probably 15 times. Don’t burn it ever ever ever. It releases it into the air and you very well could end up in the hospital. I was pulling weeds one time and I ended up getting it in my mouth from dirt flying up off the plant and had to have an inhaler and breathing treatments for two weeks. Also cortizone shot and prednisone pack twice. It was terrible. It took two months to be completely gone.

    I currently just rashed out on my face and neck with a swollen eye. Doctor says poison ivy, but I looked again and don’t see it but I have Virginia creeper…. Not sure but this stuff is terrible. I watched a video about poision ivy. A man described it as grease lime automotive grease. So wash three times is what he said. When I knew I was exposed that’s exactly what I did and no rash.

  8. We were cleaning up our property at a small river about 3 weeks ago. We have both gotten what the doctor says is Poison Sumac. Each patch starts out with a scattering of blisters and progresses to become a a dense patch of blisters…VERY ITCHY!!!! We have showered with dawn repeatedly, washed all of our clothing, sheets, towels, etc through 2 heaviy wash cycles, yet still, 3 weeks later, we keep getting new patches of blisters all over our bodies, legs, arms, stomach, face, neck, back..just everywhere. We have even been on prednisone(orally), and prescription creams(topically). Does this get into your system and just pop out on places that had no physical contact with the oil?

  9. I am one of the lucky ones that is VERY sensitive to Virginia Creeper (5 leaves). Six to eight weeks after contact the rash and intense itching finally go away.

  10. Also, highly allergic to Virginia Creeper which has taken over the back, west side of my yard. Rx cream is not always sufficient, have needed Rx for Prednisone twice. It take a long time to heal and can leave serious scarring so be careful people.

  11. Poison ivy is just about every where in mid west America. I have been exposed to it many times trimming fence rows and other places on a farm. It is probably mixed in with the brush that gathers in our burn piles. I have had it many times, never learned to like it but learned to live with it. There are some good products that will treat or prevent infections, I use one called Tecnu. After exposure to popison ivy I wash any exposed areas with it and seldom have a problem afterward. I have never had a problem from burning poison ivy, but i’m only 83 so i’ll hold off judgfement. Every one reacts differently.

    By accident I found the best way to relieve the itch is hot water, as hot as you can stand without pain or scalding. It also works on other itches, including fungus, so give it a trty.

  12. Don’t kid yourself: these tricky plants can be dangerous to folks with a low tolerance for the urushiol, and the effects of the irritating can be extremely hard to manage after being exposed.
    Years ago, I remember that certain spray deodorants used to be manufactured with a clay base that was said to halt the uber itchy rash by acting as an absorbing barrier to the urushiol. Whether or not it ever came out on the market I don’t know, but over the past many years i have wished for such a thing I promise!
    Bottom line? Learn what they look like, teach yourself to practice safe handling techniques for ANY nearby woodland plants, and protext yourself by never getting the dastardly stuff on your skin.
    Clay based treatments do help if you can get them in without smearing the irritants all over your skin, but it seems like most people just make their case of poison ivy worse before its even visible.
    I wonder if diatomaceous earth (“DE”) has any properties that would help keep the urushiol off the skin if, say, you brushed against it by accident during normal yard work? What clays can be counted on to stick to and trap the oils? Is a commercial treatment preparation really neccessary or is there a DIY option that is truly as good (or better) to prevent or treat urushiol based skin irritations?


  14. Virgina Creeper is NASTY!!!! I have a killer itchyyyyy rash. Now in week 3 and just starting to see healing but the itch is still there. I am not a fan of roundup but I will be using it on VC.


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