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Poison Ivy: Spot the Plant, Treat the Rash

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Leaves of three, let it be. Poison ivy is easy to spot–especially in fall. Here are some pointers to identify (and treat) poison ivy all year around.

red poison ivy with berries

My local trail system is dusty, dry, and sparsely vegetated. But fall brings it to life. One plant that keeps me on my toes, crowding running trails along canyon beds with its hearty stalks, is poison ivy.

Here are some pointers from the CDC to identify and treat that infamous, itchy antagonist.

What It Is

Poison ivy is one of the most common types of poisonous plants found in North America. Exposure to the plant’s oils can cause a nasty contact dermatitis.

How To Identify

“Leaves of three, let it be.” While this is generally good advice, in some extremely rare cases leaves of five have been reported. Plants can vary by season and location.

eastern poison ivy
Eastern poison ivy. Rob Routledge, Sault College, Bugwood.org. Creative Commons License, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License

Eastern poison ivy is usually hairy, with shiny leaves budding from a single stem that grows as a rope-like vine through aerial roots.

Western poison ivy
Western poison ivy. Courtesy www.poison-ivy.org

Western poison ivy is typically a low shrub with three leaves. The western variation doesn’t form a climbing vine like its eastern cousin.

The bunched berries are easy to identify in fall and can be white to green-yellow, or amber colored.

Where It’s Found

united states distribution map of poison ivy
Distribution map of Western poison ivy (left) and Eastern poison ivy (right). Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Poison ivy is abundant in the lower 48. According to the CDC, western and eastern poison ivy combined are found in all states (except California, where poison oak is the norm).

The hearty noxious plant thrives in just about any environment, and can be found in woods, wetlands, alpine deserts, and urban environments like backyards.

How To Avoid

Identification is your best prevention. Become familiar with your local variant of poison ivy and stick to the trails which are devoid of plants in general.

Traveling off trail, be wary of stream beds where poison ivy thrives. Best bet is to protect your skin and wear long pants, long socks, and sleeved shirts.

Barrier creams, like lotion containing bentoquatam, may also serve as a protective barrier. The CDC recommends washing off and reapplying protective creams twice a day.

What To Do If Encountered

People react to the plant’s toxic oil, urushiol, 12–72 hours after exposure. The oils can remain active for up to five years, even after killing the plant with herbicide.

If you think your clothes or gear were in contact with poison ivy, wrap exposed clothing in a plastic bag and wash them in detergent and hot water when returning home. For similar reasons, wash your dog if it was exposed.

Clean any other exposed gear with rubbing alcohol.


Immediately wash your skin with rubbing alcohol or degreasing soap (like dishwashing soap). Rinse frequently with lots of water. With a brush, scrub under your nails with soap and water. The goal here is to remove the oils.

Don’t dry the skin, as it could spread the urushiol.

Apply a wet compress, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone cream to reduce the itching and blistering. Antihistamines (like Benadryl) can help relieve itching.

Seek medical attention if rashes are on the face, genitals, or if you suspect you inhaled burned poison ivy.

Call 911 if you are suffering from a severe allergic reaction or you had a severe reaction in the past.

Worst Case Scenario

sever poison ivy reaction rash blisters

About 80–90 percent of adults will have an allergic reaction to even small amounts of contact. The typical response will be an itchy rash, bumps or blisters, and swelling.

A poison ivy rash can be extremely annoying, causing downtime from work or play. But the rash will pass after a few weeks.

Ingesting poison ivy berries can be fatal.

Finally, never burn poison ivy. This can release the urushiol particles into air. Inhaled particles could elicit a potentially fatal inflammatory response, closing off the airway.

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