July 7, 2019

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy is my nemesis. And in the South, poison ivy is literally everywhere.

Poison Ivy

Eastern Poison Ivy
(Toxicodendron radicans)

I live in the South. The North Carolina Piedmont to be more precise. And in the South, one particular vine—other than Kudzu—predominates: Poison Ivy. And boy does it affect me. Poison Oak and Sumac also exist, but I don't run into them as often.

Poison Ivy and its siblings exude an oil called urushiol. This oil is an irritant that will affect most people upon contact. Those sensitive to the substance will develop a skin rash called urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. I am one of those chosen many.

Note, most young children are not sensitive to the oil, for whatever reason. Sensitivity is developed by most people in their early to late teens. For some, deep into adulthood. I was in my 30s when I developed a sensitivity to the allergen.


The plant is pretty easy to identify, but here's a nice quiz to help you get a bit more comfortable picking out those three leaves: Poison Ivy Quiz

Note that a Poison Ivy vine is "hairy." If you find a vine that is not hairy, it's not Poison Ivy. Also... Many people don't realize it, but Poison Ivy blooms in the Spring! For us it blooms at the end of April / beginning of May.

Clockwise: Poison Ivy vine, leaves, blooms

The Poison Ivy Reaction Timeline

  • Day 0: Exposure! I weed a garden. Often something as simple as walking around in only flip-flops is enough.
  • Day 1: An itchy rash appears on my body, almost always in multiple locations. Depending on exposure, a reaction can be rather soon after exposure, or a day or two later.
  • I curse and hope that I washed my hands thoroughly before going to the bathroom that day. Ask me how I know.
  • Day 2 or 3...
    • The rash worsens where the most contact occurred.
    • The rash begins to pop up in regions not as severely hit or in places affected by collateral contact. Example, on Day 0 my hand had oil on it and then scratched my sweaty forehead.
    • The itching becomes significant and impossible to ignore
    • In severe cases, restful sleep becomes challenging
  • Day 4 and 5...
    • In severe cases blisters form and may be seeping. In very severe cases I have had to bandage affected areas in order to not horrify the public with oozy nastiness.
    • I resort to a dog brush (the metal bristle side) to scratch the itchy areas. At first I avoid the blistery parts so as not to break them open or bleed. Sometimes I am not strong enough to avoid this. The dog brush brings bliss.
    • A hot shower triggers orgasms of sensation in places that should not orgasm. I am not exaggerating. This is the only bonus of a Poison Ivy rash.
  • Day 6 or 7: The itching subsides except for regions that just seem to constantly itch: Around the knees, ankles, tops of feet, sides of the torso, the inner arms, the "nether regions." You get the idea.
  • Week 2 and 3: Most oozy places have healed to a degree and only pink blotches remain. Remainder itching has mostly subsided.
  • Week 3 or 4: Recovered and usually completely healed.
A dog brush brings bliss, but avoid it as much as possible.

Poison Ivy sucks. And it is everywhere where we live. Give me a ten-by-ten sunny to semi-shade plot of land in North Carolina that isn't manicured and I will find Poison Ivy. I grew up in Pennsylvania. There was plenty there, just not at this scale.

Tips for Avoiding Contact

You can't.

Okay, that's unfair. You can, but you can't completely. If you do anything outside, you will run into it. And by outside, I don't mean walking around in chemically sterilized locations: suburbia, baseball fields, etc. I mean places that are a bit more wild. You friend's farm or rural homestead. Unkempt parking lots. Parks (the ones with wildness to them). Etc.

Long Pants and Shirt

This can help, but you still have to worry about these things:

  • Your hands
  • Where you scratch
  • Clothing that touched Poison Ivy (collateral contact)

Wash your hands often. Avoid scratching your eyes, nose, ears... All the stuff that commonly itches "just because."

Toss your clothing in the laundry. The actual tub. Not the laundry basket where someone then touches it again. Personally, I leave my sweaty work clothes hanging up outside to dry and wear them again the next day. I then make sure they are laundered whenever we wash everything else. This avoids having to dirty up many sets of clothing.

The challenge: North Carolina can hit 100+ degrees, especially in August. I personally balance Poison Ivy contact versus heat stroke—i.e., I often end up wearing shorts and a t-shirt regardless.


Gloves can help, but remember the scratching rules mentioned above. Gloves can also give you a false sense of security. Additionally, they too need to be cleaned. Depending on how long I will be outside pulling weeds or whatever, I will often go gloveless. If I need to work for a long time between washing my hands—gloves. If a short time—gloveless. If I am lazy—gloveless. I am often lazy.

Wash. Pee. Wash.

I can't emphasize this enough. Ol' Boy will get some on him at least once a year, but, just remember to wash your hands before you go to the bathroom. And if you think have you washed thoroughly, do it some more. Focus on between those fingers! See next section.

Tips for After Contact

If you know you will likely be touching Poison Ivy....

  • Wash your hands and arms thoroughly every 15 minutes. If wearing shorts, include your legs and feet.
  • Wash with soap and water and a washcloth. The soap and water is critical but that washcloth makes all the difference in the world.
  • Liquid dish soap is the best soap to use (designed to really cut the grease), but a normal bar soap works fine as well. With bar soap, you simply have to wash more diligently. Body wash is crap. It's crap for general hygiene as well, but... I digress.
  • Don't buy specialty "Poison Ivy Soap". It's a marketing gimmick. Dish soap is what you want to use. The Poison Ivy soap-peddlers sell wipes as well. I have never used them, but they are better than nothing for sure.

Other Tips and Factoids

  • The rash is not a disease. You CAN NOT react by simply being in contact with someone else with the rash—or even from your own rash—once the oil has been washed away. You can tell people this until you are blue in the face and they still don't believe you (at that point I label them "dense" or worse). It's not a bacterial infection. It an allergic reaction to an oil that was absorbed into the skin. The remainder has been washed away.
  • A weed whip will fling the oil everywhere. It dispenses the oil as an aerosol, effectively. It will be all over your legs and probably elsewhere. Just be aware of this and plan accordingly. Maybe wear goggles (I don't generally).
  • Those thick vines going up a tree: Use an ax or machete to cut them. A chain saw will do what a weed whip does: fling the oil everywhere.
  • Your dog, cat, livestock, kids, etc... Can get the oil on them, and when you touch them, they get it on you. The same goes for things like lawn tractor tires, etc. Plan accordingly.
  • The mythology says that if you burn the ivy, it can get into your lungs and cause all kinds of problems. I do not know if this is true. It sounds false to me, but... be careful out there.
  • For severe reactions, your doctor can prescribe steroid pills and creams (and even a shot I believe) that will dramatically reverse the process.

THE authoritative how-to video on the topic: How to never have a serious poison ivy rash again

My hand. My wife's arm.

Conclusion - Poison Ivy Sucks

...but it is manageable; even tolerable.

As I write this, my wife is visiting her doctor so she can reduce her misery via steroids. I work outside almost continuously so I always suffer a bit. It's part of the deal. But at this point, I generally avoid significant rashes. I usually have one bad reaction per year because I was either a) lazy about washing or b) I really dove headfirst into clearing brush or some such and I just couldn't get out of the field for hours. Find your own level of tolerance. I balance convenience with practicality when I am out there, but most of you don't have to be me.

Don't let Poison Ivy stop you from enjoying time spent outside. A bit of discomfort is a small price to pay when servicing the needs of your soul.

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