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Leaves of Three: What you THINK you know…

July 2, 2013

DSCF1914So in the first part of this series, I brought up the different lookalikes for Poison Ivy. Along with identifying it, knowing the truths vs the myths of Poison Ivy is important too. Some of these following quotes are well known thoughts or old wives tales. Some of them are things I’ve witnessed people discussing. Either way, some of the things that are thought to be true about Poison Ivy are not true at all. I will attempt to cover the ones that I know about.

This is where I put the disclaimer that says I am in no way a science or medical expert, but I do know what is real and what isn’t when it comes to MY experiences with this demon of the plant world, so hopefully we all can learn a thing or two.

The most important part of understanding why Poison Ivy can ruin your fortnight is getting familiar with Urushiol Oil. This stuff is the oil that gets on your skin and causes the rash and blisters.This is the fuel that makes Poison Ivy the menace that it is, along with Poison Oak and Poison Sumac. Luckily for us in Missouri, Poison Oak is rare and Poison Sumac has never been documented. Unluckily for us, Poison Ivy is everywhere in Missouri.


Lower Rock Creek, a few years ago.

“You can only get Poison Ivy if you touch a Poison Ivy leaf.”

This is false. It is in and on every part of the plant, in every season and under every weather condition. The leaves, the stems, the roots, probably the leaf litter it is growing out of. I have been backpacking in the winter, when there weren’t any leaves on anything. The weather had warmed up enough that weekend so I was scrambling all over the hills around Lower Rock Creek in shorts. Wouldn’t you know it, a couple of days after being back home, the rash showed up in a couple narrow swipes across the sides of my lower legs. I had apparently come in contact with the plants or stems from a vine and had no way of knowing I was in it because of the LACK of leaves.


Fragrant Sumac hiding in the top right corner.

“Poison Ivy can spread.”

ONLY if you still have the Urushiol Oil on your skin. It is a very potent oil and there are crazy statistics that claim that just a pinhead’s worth of the stuff could get an allergic reaction from hundreds of people. Generally however, by the time the rash shows up, you have washed it off of your skin. The weeping blisters seem ominous in all there oozing grossness, but that is simply clear liquid that your body is producing. And will continue to produce, until the reaction is over and the rash begins to heal.

There are a couple situations that can occur that can make it seem like the rash is spreading. One example is that it could still be on your clothes or your shoes or your dog, and you could be re-exposing yourself, causing a secondary allergic reaction days later. Or maybe you touched the plant again (Aaaauuggghhh!!!) without knowing it, and you end up getting staggered reactions making it seem like it is spreading


Turns out I have been taking pictures of Poison Ivy for over twenty years.

“I have never gotten Poison Ivy, so I must not be allergic to it.”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, about 85% of people are allergic to Poison Ivy…so yeah, 15% are not allergic. I will tell you though, I have had enough people tell me that they aren’t allergic, that statistically some of you are in for a nasty surprise if you tread through the wrong patch in the woods. So as most of us are allergic, some of us are lucky enough to have not yet come in direct contact with this evil plant. And like in a lot of cases with allergic reactions, your first exposure is free. The first time you touch Poison Ivy, you may not have a reaction. This is just the priming exposure. Your immune system has now been exposed to Urushiol Oil and has recognized it as a bad substance, and is ready to freak out the next time it comes around. It’s the second and third exposures that are gonna cost ya’. So you may have knowingly walked through an area with Poison Ivy in it, and not have gotten any reaction. Just don’t do it again.

DSCF1822“If you aren’t itching right away, that wasn’t Poison Ivy you JUST touched.”

If you are itching right away, you touched some other jerk of the plant world. Reaction to the Urushiol Oil typically takes between at least 12 hours and a couple of days. I know based on my own experience that I usually get the start of a reaction between three and five days from when I touched it, which just gets progressively worse for a couple more days before it settles into around two weeks of general suckiness. When your skin comes in contact with it, it begins to absorb the Urushiol Oil, and then reacts to it in time. But you won’t start itching immediately. This is part of the Poison Ivy’s terror…that you won’t really know for a day or two if you win or lose. I have also heard that you do have time to wash the oil off…but you should do it right away. I would think that HOW MUCH time depends on how quickly your skin can absorb the Urushiol Oil, and I would imagine that it varies from person to person. And wash all the clothes you were wearing. And the dog.

DSCF1911“My Grandmother used to eat a young Poison Ivy leaf in the springtime to build up her immunity.”

Now I have heard from a couple Park Ranger/Forestry types that they had built up immunity to having a reaction through continual exposure, and I am sure that it could happen based on the way that the body changes at times concerning allergies…but, EATING a Poison Ivy leaf?!? That just sounds like a recipe for disaster. Much like how you can get it in your lungs from burning the plant and getting the oil into the air, I would imagine that an allergic reaction in the mouth and throat and possibly digestive tract would warrant a visit to the hospital as well. Just don’t do it.

DSCF1915“That can’t be Poison Ivy…it isn’t growing on a vine.”

Poison Ivy grows as a shrub AND a vine. I think the vine gets more notice however because the leaves always seem to be bigger and more menacing. But it does grow as a little sneaky shrub too, just lurking in the underbrush, waiting for YOU to come strolling innocently past. Learn to identify both versions.

I have heard other things about Poison Ivy concerning treating it, but maybe I will leave that for another part in this series. I guess I’m gonna have to go out and get some Urushiol Oil on me so that I can get some pictures of the gruesome reaction. Or maybe expose someone else to it, y’know, for education. Any volunteers?

  1. My funny poison ivy story. An ex-girlfriend was asking me what poison ivy looked like, as she had never seen it to her knowledge. I was telling her about the three leaves, hairy vines, etc. I was looking around to see if I could spot any, as it is quite common in Michigan. I told her that it looked a lot like the vine growing on the tree that I was leaning against with my hand, with my hand on the vine. Then I saw the leaves. Yup, this is poison ivy alright!

    I know that I had come in contact with it before with no reaction, but I still didn’t take any chances. I made sure that I never touched any bare skin with the hand that had been on the vine until after I had washed it thoroughly.

    • I don’t know if I could ever describe a Poison Ivy story as being funny, but THAT is funny. One of those moments in the woods…”Well, it looks just like this stuff I’m STANDING in!”
      That ability to continue through the woods while NOT letting the potentially exposed hand touch anything else is key. You don’t know if you’re definitely going to get it, but the strength to not absentmindedly scratch your head or wipe your nose can be a challenge.
      A month or so ago, we were hiking on a friend’s property off trail and the kids were ahead of me. We were just heading over a hill, and I looked down to realize they had all just walked through a broad patch of the stuff. We got home as fast as we could and I made them all just sit on the floor until they had each washed themselves off. Luckily no one ended up getting a reaction…this time…

  2. Brad permalink

    Great articles. One more thing I need to learn about in this great state of Missouri. I guess in time I will learn if I am the lucky 15%

    • Thanks man! This one is near and dear to my heart because few things in life raise my anxiety level like poison ivy. It isn’t AS BAD as I tend to make it out to be, but it still sucks. Cross your fingers but don’t hold your breath. The best cure is avoidance.

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