Hay Bales: Problems with poison ivy

Mike Trammel, ag educator and multi-county agronomist
Pottawatomie County Extension Service

Lately, I have had several folks stop by to ask about poison ivy. Poison ivy in Oklahoma comes in the form of small herb like plants, vines that can grow up trees and fences, and can even be in the form of a small shrubs.  The best identifying characteristic is the plant will always have three leaflets that make up one leaf.  Poison ivy can really bother some folks, while others can wade through it up to their neck and be just fine. Others can have a reaction from handling things that have been exposed to poison ivy. Poison ivy has an oil that can contaminate tools, clothing and the fur of pets and then be transferred to the skin causing a reaction.  If the oil is not washed off, it can be transferred to anyone handling the object or touching the pet. The entire plant is poisonous because all parts contain the irritating oil, urushiol. Urushiol is a colorless or slightly yellow oil found in the leaves, stems and roots. The oil can remain active for months on objects. Even dead plants or roots may cause allergic reactions for a couple of years. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you cannot get poison ivy from another person’s rash or blisters. You can only get a rash from touching something that has the urushiol oil on it.  It seems some people never get the rash associated with poison ivy, but there are others that are extremely sensitive to it.

 I was very allergic to poison ivy as a child, but over time, I must have developed an immunity to it. However, most of the literature says that even if you are immune to it, at some point your body may begin to react to it again, so for those of us that don’t think we can get it, it’s best to be aware of the plant and try not to come into contact with its oil. Even if we never get a reaction from the oil, it would be best if we avoided as much contact with this plant as possible for the health of our loved ones. For those of you who are allergic to poison ivy, and contact with the oil occurs, a rash usually develops in 12 to 48 hours. You are more likely to get a rash from the ivy in the spring and summer when the oil is at its highest concentration in the plant. If you think you have come into contact with poison ivy, you should wash the affected area of skin under running water as soon as possible. Unless the oil is removed from the skin within 10 minutes, there is a good likelihood you will develop a reaction to the oil if you are extremely sensitive to poison ivy. Less sensitive people may have up to 4 hours before they must wash it off, but some literature suggests that the oil binds with the skin within thirty minutes or less making it difficult to remove from the skin. The rash usually goes away in 14-20 days without any treatment, but this time seems much longer to the millions of people who suffer from the pain and itching associated with poison ivy.

The following are some tips I gathered from the American Academy of Dermatology web site:  the best way to prevent a rash is to avoid the plants altogether. If this is not possible, use a skin care product that helps prevent the skin from absorbing the oil (urushiol) that causes the rash. These products usually contain bentoquatam. You can buy these products over the counter at your local pharmacy. Be sure to apply the product before going outdoors. You should wear long pants, long sleeves, boots, and gloves when around these plants even when you are using a product that contains bentoquatam.  If you do touch one of these plants, you may prevent a rash by washing the exposed area of the skin off as soon as possible (usually within 10 minutes) using lukewarm water and soap. Washing all clothing and everything else that may have gotten the oil on it will prevent further reactions to the oil. Remember, to be careful handling the exposed clothing.  If you do develop a rash from the plant, and it’s a mild rash, you can often ease your discomfort by doing one or more of the following: Apply hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to the rash. Try not to scratch, since scratching can cause an infection. Because the rash can be very itchy, dermatologists recommend keeping your skin and fingernails clean. This can help prevent an infection. In the case of severe reactions, you should consult with your doctor.

Everyone who gets a rash from one of these poisonous plants should wash the clothing and shoes they wore when they touched the plant. To remove the oil, they should wash these in hot sudsy water. If the oil is not washed off, the oil can stay active for a long time. Wash everything else that might have touched the plants. Did any garden tools, sports equipment, or other objects touch the plant?  If so, wash the objects with rubbing alcohol or a mix of water and bleach.

As stated above, poison ivy in Oklahoma can look like a small broadleaf herb, a small shrub, or a climbing vine.  The old rhyme “leaflets three, let it be” still holds true when trying to identify poison ivy. Poison ivy has compound leaves that occur in threes (trifoliate or three leaflets). The edges of the leaflets can be smooth, wavy, lobed or toothed. Some leaves may resemble oak leaves. Most mature poison ivy plants will flower and produce clusters of white, waxy fruit. This fruit is attractive to birds and animals that can then spread the seed to our properties. This makes controlling poison ivy an ongoing battle. There are several herbicides that control poison ivy, two of the more commonly available products that work well are glyphosate and triclopyr. These products are readily available at garden stores or farm supply stores. Caution should be used when utilizing these products since they can be active on plants we do not want to kill. Be sure and read the herbicide label before utilizing one of these products. The label is the law.

If you have questions concerning this topic or related topics, please contact the OSU Extension Center at 273-7683, stop by the office, or visit our website: http://www.oces.okstate.edu/pottawatomie/

The pesticide information presented in this publication was current with federal and state regulations at the time of printing.  The user is responsible for determining that the intended use is consistent with the label of the product being used.  Use pesticides safely.  Read and follow label directions.  The information given herein is for educational purposes only.  Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Cooperative Extension Service is implied.

Oklahoma State University, as an equal opportunity employer, complies with all applicable federal and state laws regarding non-discrimination and affirmative action.  Oklahoma State University is committed to a policy of equal opportunity for all individuals and does not discriminate based on race, religion, sex, color, national origin, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression, disability, or veteran status with regard to employment, educational programs and activities, and/or admissions.  For more information, visit https:///eeo.okstate.edu