How Can You Tell If It’s Poison Ivy?

A safety signage in the forest saying "Caution: Poison Ivy."

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of coming into contact with poison ivy, you likely won’t forget the encounter any time soon. First comes the red rash, itching and blisters. Symptoms can develop from a few hours to even a week later. 

The culprit? Urushiol oil found in the sap of these plants. Just two micrograms, what would sit on the head of a pin, is enough to cause misery to a person. Let’s take a closer look at the differences between poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac so that you can distinguish them (and stay away) in the future.

How To Recognize Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, and Poison Sumac

  • Poison ivy can grow anywhere in the contiguous United States except for parts of the West Coast. It can be found climbing up small plants, poles, trees and also growing across the ground. In the spring, the leaves are smooth, reddish, and glossy and come in groups of three. The edges of these leaves can be either toothed or smooth. In the summer, leaves are green and turn yellow, orange, or red in the fall. You may even see green or white flowers with yellow berries.
  • Poison oak grows in the Southern and Eastern United States always as a shrub but in tall mounds or even long vines on the Pacific Coast. Leaves appear as fuzzy clusters of three and are toothed or lobed with round tips. It’s possible they may also have yellow berries.
  • Poison sumac can be found in parts of the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest growing as a tall bush or as a small tree in swamps and bogs. These leaves have clusters of seven to 13 smooth-edged leaflets. Again, the colors change during the seasons, appearing orange in the spring, green in the summer, and yellow, orange or even red in the fall. You may also find white or green berries hanging in loose clusters with the plant and/or yellow to green flowers as well.

Try and remember: Leaves of three, let them be. Don’t forget about the leaves of seven and 13, either.

Rashes From Poison Plants Aren’t Contagious

It has often been thought you can spread poison plant rashes to another person. This is not true. What you can spread to another person or even on your own body is urushiol that hasn’t yet been removed. Plant oil can stick to pets, clothing, garden tools, or anything else the plant has come into contact with. Urushiol can stick to most any surface and cannot be destroyed. The oil can, in fact, live for years on any surface until it is effectively removed.

Rashes only occur where the oil has touched the skin and can be spread throughout the body by scratching if it is not removed. You may think the rash is spreading but this isn’t true, you may be spreading oil that has remained under your fingernails and where you have touched another part of your body. Also, different parts of the body may absorb the urushiol at different rates, making it appear as though the rash were just popping up at random.

It is also possible you are repeatedly coming back into contact with a contaminated surface. Even if blisters break, the fluid in the blisters is not related to the plant oil itself. These blisters are just the reaction caused by the body’s defense mechanism against the oil. Simply scratching the rash will not spread it around your body.

How to Prevent Contact with Poisonous Plants

  • Learn how to identify poisonous plants so you can avoid them in the future.
  • If you have had outbreaks in the past, be sure to wash all clothing, tools, and surfaces that may have come into contact with these plants after you have been working in the garden or been out discovering nature.
  • Bathe your pet if you think they have brushed up against any plants.
  • Wash your skin as soon as possible if you come into contact with a plant. The sooner you clean your skin, the less likely you are to develop a rash.

What is the Best Way to Treat Poison Ivy?

At Tecnu, our goal is simple: to create innovative products that help our consumers solve a problem. 

Our team continually strives to find new and better ways to not only meet, but to exceed the needs and expectations of our customers. We vow to stay on the path of advancement without losing sight of who we are at our core: a driven group of individuals with a desire to help others, whether they be outdoor adventurers, gardeners, athletes, moms, dads, or all of the above

TecLabs offers the industry’s best treatments for poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac. Our Original Outdoor Skin Cleanser and Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub helps wash away the culprit (urushiol).