Here’s How to Never Get Poison Ivy Again

Poison ivy is no trip to the beach. With a trip to the beach you get seagulls and swimming and maybe a tan. With poison ivy, you get to stay up scratching your bubbles at 3 am.

Don’t do that.

Also, if I had a nickel for every time I sat by listening to someone talk about some new miracle poison ivy treatment that’s supposed to cure it, fast, I’d have about 35 nickels. Enough already.

Here are some tips to ensure you never, ever get poison ivy again. Like, ever.

Why should you trust me? I used to suffer horribly from poison ivy. I’d get it so bad my face would puff up and friends wouldn’t recognize me. Since I figured out how to beat it, I haven’t had it in 27 years. That’s despite working and playing around it almost daily.

There Is No Cure for Poison Ivy

Classic drooping poison ivy.

Ready? Deep breath. Once you have poison ivy, you have poison ivy. There’s no way to stop it. Well, okay. You can go to the doctor and get a cortisone shot. But all those soaps and creams and home remedies and plants people tout? I’ve tried them all. None of them work.

Here’s How Poison Ivy Works

Poison ivy, the plant, has this oil it secretes, called urushiol. I know, it sounds like something from a movie about aliens that put eggs down your throat. Actually that’s not too far off.

Urushiol, like any other oil, is sticky. Here’s how it gives you poison ivy:

  1. It soaks into your skin. This takes about 15 minutes.
  2. Your skin has an allergic reaction to it.
  3. You itch for 2-4 weeks, break out in bubbles, and whine until loved ones don’t want you around.

Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

No, it’s not contagious. You can’t give it to someone else. You can’t spread it from one area of your skin to the next.

Why does it spread, then?

There are two reasons poison ivy spreads.

How Poison Ivy Spreads

Poison ivy spreads in two ways.

  1. Wherever the oil touched you, you’ll get it. That is, if you soak your entire body in urushiol right now, in 8-12 the rash will show up on one spot. It’ll then gradually spread all over your body. Therefore, it appears contagious. It’s not.
  2. You keep rubbing the oil on different parts of you. You might have poison ivy oil in your clothes, on your bedding, on your dog, or in your car. Every time you touch it with a different part of your skin, the rash spreads.

Does Pus from Poison Ivy Bubbles Spread the Rash?

No. You can’t spread poison ivy from one part of your skin to another, except if you have the original plant oil still on your skin.

How do I know this? I’ve tested it on myself. The last time I had a really bad poison ivy rash, I broke open some of the bubbles and spread the result (ick) to an unaffected area. Read my lips: no new rash.

Can you Really Only Get the Rash from the Plant Itself?

Yes. Touching the plant is the only way to get the rash. The oil from the plant gets on your skin. It soaks in, in about 15 minutes. About eight hours later, you’ve got an itchy new rash.

How Can I Stop Getting Poison Ivy?

This is so embarrassingly easy to do it’s, well, embarrassing. But it takes a little effort, so most people won’t do it. I’ll attest, though, that once I did it, I have never since got the rash again. Not in nearly three decades.

Okay, here comes the mind bender:

Learn what it looks like.

That’s it? I mean, really?

Yep. That’s it.

Poison ivy has a very distinctive look once you learn it. Before you learn it, anything green gives you the twitches. After you learn it, you’re set for life. No more rash. I’ll explain how that works further down.

How to Recognize Poison Ivy

The classic poison ivy shape.

Okay, here’s how to spot poison ivy. I’ll get into the magic of how knowing is half the battle in a bit.

First, know where to look. You don’t have to waste time looking for poison ivy everywhere. The plant loves the border zones between light and darkness. It’s kind of like Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse now in that way.

The terrible plant grows between forests and roads, between buildings and lawns, between rivers and woods. If you’re in a zone that’s half in shadow, half in light, start looking.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like?

Poison ivy has three leaves, and three leaves only. The leaves are either green or red, shiny or dull, depending on how old the plant is. They tend to droop, folding on the central spine, like they can’t be bothered to keep themselves up. The middle leaf is symmetrical. The two outer leaves aren’t.

The two outer leaves have a thumb shape on them.

The plant tends to grow in patches.

That’s it! Memorize this plant. Learn to spot it. Once you do, it’ll jump up and shout at you while you’re walking along, oblivious. Since I learned what poison ivy looks like, I’ve almost never touched it again, in decades. Almost.

What Can You Do if You’ve Touched Poison Ivy?

Sometimes, you just can’t help it. One time at band camp (whoops that’s another story). One time on a whitewater rafting trip on which I was a videoboater (read: vidiot), one of the customers broke her ankle. I mean, this thing was flopping.

We had to get her up a long, steep hill, which meant I ended up on my hands and knees in a big field of poison ivy. It was wiping all over my arms, legs, and face. I knew it was happening but there was nothing I could do about it.

“Good heavens, sir Godfrey! What did you do?” Read on!

If You’ve Touched Poison Ivy, the Clock is Ticking

Remember that robot in Robocop? Not Peter Weller. I mean the big stop-motion one. ED-209. There’s that scene where he kills the stockbroker. Just before he does, he tells the guy, “You have fifteen seconds to comply.”

If you’ve touched poison ivy, imagine ED-209 saying that to you. Except instead of seconds, it’s minutes.

Here’s Why Spotting Poison Ivy Means You’ll Never Get it Again

Five leaves! Not poison ivy!

Once you touch poison ivy, you have a 15-minute window before the oil can soak into your skin.

If you don’t know what it looks like, you’re effed. You’ll touch it and never know it happened. Enjoy the scratching vacation that ensues.

But if you know what it looks like, you’ll know exactly when you touched it. You’ll be able to behave accordingly.

Here’s What to Do if You’ve Touched Poison Ivy

Once you know you’ve touched the murderous little plant, get the oil off. How? Well, imagine you just rubbed olive oil on your skin and you really, really want to get it off. What would you do?

If you’re near a bathroom, you’d go in and wash it off with soap. Simple as that. You’ve got 15 minutes from the time you touch the plant to make that happen.

What if you’re not near a bathroom?

In my whitewater evacuation example, I just came back down to the river, jumped in, and vigorously rubbed my skin. I didn’t have soap, but oil doesn’t stand up well to a long soak and a vigorous rubbing.

What if you’re not near any water at all?

I’ve run into that situation several times over the years since I learned what poison ivy looks like. It’s still easy to get oil off your skin even without water. If you’re outside, look around for a little road dust or sand. Take handfuls of it and rub it on the spot the plant touched. It’ll soak up the oil and you won’t get a rash.

Again, you can’t do all this unless you know what the plant looks like.


That’s it! You’re now armed with everything you need, and you’ll never get this terrible rash again as long as you live. Isn’t that comforting? The key takeaways are 1) learn what it looks like, 2) Once you learn it, you’ll almost never touch it again, and 3) even if you do touch it, get the oil off your skin within 15 minutes with soap and water, water and vigorous rubbing, or road dust or sand.

What’s your poison ivy two cents? Give me a shout out in the comments! I’m itching to hear what oh no dear God I didn’t just make that pun.

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