Poison ivy is a woody plant that can cause an irritating rash when it comes into contact with your skin. The “poison” in poison ivy is a pale yellow liquid called urushiol. Some people are more sensitive to this irritant than others. Approximately 85 percent of the people who are exposed to this oily sap will develop a rash. Even if you’ve never had a reaction to poison ivy, repeated exposure can increase your susceptibility. Everyone should assume that they’re at least mildly sensitive and avoid coming into contact with it. Poison ivy is found throughout Kansas and all parts of the plant – stems, roots, flowers, berries and leaves – can cause an allergic reaction. 

People who come into contact with poison ivy can experience symptoms ranging from mild itching and irritation to full-blown inflammation and painful, watery blisters. However, if the blisters leak or burst, the fluid inside can’t spread the rash any further or contaminate anyone else. 

Poison ivy can take the form of a low-growing shrub, a trailing vine along the ground, or a hairy, rope-like vine growing up the side of a tree. As a vine growing on a tree, it goes straight up the trunk.

Heed the old saying, “Leaflets of three, let it be.” Poison ivy has a compound leaf made up of three leaflets. The top leaf is often larger and has a longer stem than the two side leaves. As a broad generality, if a plant has three leaflets, it may be poisonous. The leaves may or may not have a waxy or oily appearance. The leaves may also have a variety of different colors on the same plant, but are typically dark green throughout the summer. Avoid any vines bearing small clusters of tiny white berries or tiny white flowers. Just like any other plant, poison ivy has flowers that bloom in the spring and summer. This is when the toxic oils are the most concentrated and potent. In our neighborhood, poison ivy grows along the alley, creeping from yard to yard along the fence lines.            

If you think you’ve been exposed to poison ivy, wash the affected area right away with soap and cold water. Warm water will open your pores and allow the irritant to penetrate your skin more deeply. Lather well and rinse thoroughly. You only have 10 minutes after exposure to prevent or reduce irritation. Rubbing alcohol is an even better solvent for urushiol than water. Rachel and I keep a bottle of dishwashing liquid and hand sanitizer in our garden shed.   

Mild reactions can be treated with calamine lotion or a colloidal oatmeal like Aveeno. Benadryl can be purchased over the counter to relieve itching. See your health care provider if the pain or itching becomes unbearable, the rash has pus or it spreads to your eyes, mouth or genitals. More severe reactions may require prescribed oral steroids such as Prednisone or a Medrol dose pack. Infected wounds may need to be treated with antibiotics. 

Clean any contaminated garden tools with rubbing alcohol. Urushiol can persist on surfaces for months. Wear protective clothing when working in or around areas containing poison ivy. Use a herbicide that’s labeled for use in controlling poison ivy or remove plants by hand. Never burn poison ivy. The smoke can contain residual urushiol which, if inhaled, can cause life-threatening injuries. Lawn mowers and string trimmers can also aerosolize urushiol, creating a potential breathing hazard.      

It only takes a small exposure. Don’t let poison ivy ruin your summer.

Rachel and Ivan Minnis are avid gardeners. They live in Leavenworth. For more information, visit The Minnis Rose Garden on Facebook. Contact them at rnlyes@hotmail.com