Home Improvement Expert Danny Lipford

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

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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.


                Three asymmetrical leaves and a hairy stem point to poison ivy.

Identifying Poisonous Plants

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.


                              A large poison ivy vine growing up a tree.

Poison Ivy and Poison Oak

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 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 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


                   Kudzu

  • 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.

Gardening Tip

The common poison plants aren’t the only ones with urushiol. Other related plants – including cashews, mangoes, and Ginkgo – can contain the irritating oil.


                              Poison plants are difficult to eradicate.

Getting Rid of Poisonous Plants

  • 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.
Never burn poison plants – the smoke can cause a deadly reaction. If you have naturalized areas in your garden, you may not be able to eradicate it completely.

Tips for Working Around Poisonous Plants

  • 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



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8 Comments on “Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac: All About the Itch”

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  1. red Says:
    August 5th, 2009 at 8:11 am

    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. Morgan Williams Says:
    March 15th, 2010 at 7:13 am

    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. dee Says:
    July 7th, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    yes it does contain the same oils as poison ivy

  4. sal Says:
    July 20th, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    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!

  5. jason Says:
    February 18th, 2011 at 6:57 am

    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

  6. ann marcum Says:
    June 13th, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    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.

  7. Chris Francis Says:
    December 5th, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    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.

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

    Chris Francis Landscapes
    http://www.chrisfrancislandscapes.com

  8. okcvnwoie Says:
    July 27th, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    Red, please note that Dee is wrong. Kudzu does not contain the same oils as poison ivy.

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