How to Identify Poison Ivy and How to Soothe the Rash

Leaves of Three, Let it Be!

By Tara AuBuchon May 19, 2016
We've all been told to look out for poison ivy. But would you know it if you saw it?

Here are some quick tips to determine if the plant in question is friend or foe.
  • As the old saying goes, "leaves of three, let it be." Poison ivy has three leaves, no more, no less.
  • Poison ivy leaves are always pointed at the tips.
  • Leaves may be simple or irregularly shaped with a lobe or two.
  • The center leaf is usually on a short stalk and a little larger than the side leaves.
  • Poison ivy grows as a vine, ground cover, and even a shrub. Don't focus on the growth habit, focus on the leaves.
  • Poison ivy is often mixed in with other plants, so tread carefully!
  • In the spring, new growth looks reddish or bright green, and the plant may have white berries.
  • In the summer, leaves are a deeper shade of green and may appear waxy when viewed from above, lighter and hairy when viewed from underneath.
  • In winter vines stand out due to their very hairy nature (see picture below)
  • In autumn the leaves are shades of red and yellow

Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli, creative commons license

What do you do if you get it?
The substance that causes the itch in a poison ivy rash is called urushiol (yoo-ROO-shee-ol). Because urushiol is sticky, it readily adheres to skin and clothing. Thus, poison ivy can be contracted through both direct and indirect contact with the resin. If you suspect you have come into contact with poison ivy, remove and wash your clothing immediately, and wash your skin with soap and warm water. Thankfully, the rash from poison ivy is not contagious (you can't get it from touching someone's rash or blistered skin).

It typically takes 12-48 hours after exposure to see a reaction. If you develop a rash, there are a variety of home care methods that can help alleviate the itching and discomfort. You can take a cool bath, and use some aloe, calamine lotion, hydrocortisone cream, or an antihistamine. If your rash is severe or near your eyes, or you have a severe widespread rash or high temperature, see your doctor immediately.

Note: This article is not a substitute for medical advice.