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DALY: Knowing what poison ivy looks like will help reduce exposure

Timothy Daly

Timothy Daly

During the spring and summer months, the extension office receives numerous calls from homeowners regarding poison ivy with questions like "What does it look like?" and "How do I get rid of it?"

Poison ivy is a woody perennial vine or shrub commonly found growing in the forest, along the roadsides and in the home landscape. The vine is frequently observed climbing trees or other structures. It causes thousands of cases of contact dermatitis (redness, rash, blisters, itching) each year. Everyone working outdoors needs to be familiar with the appearance of the plant. The leaves are soft and arranged alternately on the stem.

Each compound leaf consists of three bright green shiny, elliptically shaped leaflets.

The small stems between the leaflets have a reddish coloring. Also, mature poison ivy plants ivy have small white berries that are spread by birds.

All parts of the plant (stems, roots, flowers, and fruit) are poisonous. Even when the leaves have fallen during winter, the bare stems can still cause a rash to anyone who comes into contact with it. The plant contains a toxic colorless oil that causes skin irritation.

People are often exposed to it when they brush against the plant and bruise the leaves getting the oil on their skin. Some are highly allergic to it, while others are not quite as sensitive. The toxin can also be spread by equipment, clothing, or animals that come in contact with the plant. If poison ivy is burned, the smoke will carry the oils and cause harmful effects to anyone exposed to the smoke or who inhales it.

Symptoms usually appear within 12 to 48 hours. If contact with the plant is suspected, wash the affected area with cold water and soap as soon as possible. Avoid using warm water since it will spread the irritating oil on the skin. Rubbing alcohol is also a remedy.

Only the toxin can spread the rash, not the fluid contained in the blisters. There are many ointments and lotions that can treat the affected skin. For more severe cases, consult a physician.

Several methods exist for the control of poison ivy. Continually cutting or mowing the plant will eventually get rid it. Digging out the individual poison ivy plants from the roots is effective, especially in beds of ornamental plants. When digging it out, always wear protective gloves and long sleeve shirts. Wash all clothes thoroughly afterwards.

Poison ivy can also be controlled by the application of herbicides. Because it has an extensive root system, two or more applications may be necessary. Several herbicides are effective for controlling it such as Roundup or others labeled for controlling brushy weeds. For best results, apply them on warm sunny days to actively growing plants. Use caution when spraying around desirable plants since misapplication and wind drift could cause damage to them. As with any pesticide, follow all label directions and safety precautions.

Being familiar with the appearance of poison ivy will help reduce the likelihood of exposure. It is wise to follow the old saying: "leaves of three let it be."

Timothy Daly, MS, is an Agricultural and Natural Resource Extension Agent with Gwinnett County. He can be contacted at 678-377-4010 or tdaly@uga.edu.