Dealing With Poison Ivy

The grass is growing, flowers are blooming, and creepy crawly plants are beginning their annual attempt to take control of our municipal parks and grounds around buildings. Many cities and towns hire summer labor to assist in controlling this invasion. Are these employees receiving the vital training they require to protect themselves from exposure to poison ivy? Do they know what to wear? Can your staff identify the plant? Do they know how to medically treat an exposure to poison ivy?

At first glance one might not think preventing or treating exposure to poisonous plants is that important, but contact with poison ivy can cost an employee and the employer several days of lost productivity due to time off, distraction from normal daily tasks, and medical costs. The following are some basic tips which can be used to educate your summer staff about how they can prevent injury or illness due to exposure to poison ivy.

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Knowing what poison ivy looks like is key to preventing exposure. Also important is determining how to safeguard oneself from physical exposure to the sticky resin (urushiol), which causes the irritation and blistering symptoms of contact with the plant.

Remember these characteristics to help you correctly identify poison ivy:

·         Found around lakes, creeks and streams in wooded areas

·         Small trailing shrub with a hairy rope-like vine or a freestanding shrub

·         Normally has three leaflets (groups of leaves all on the same small stem coming off a larger main stem)

·         Leaves are not consistent. Some may be smooth on the edges, while others may have lobes.

·         Generally at least one of the leaves has a pronounced lobe that sticks out like a thumb. This makes the leaf look similar to a mitten.

·         Leaves are green in the summer and red in the fall. The plant also produces small yellow or green flowers and white berries.


Upon identifying the plant prepare to deal with it without exposing yourself to the urushiol. Most cities and towns want this pesky plant removed from parks and grounds around buildings so take the necessary precautions to remove or at least control it.

1)   Wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, socks, at least ankle high boots, and gloves. If you are planning on burning the plants (make sure to contact your local fire department for burning regulations in your region of Oklahoma) take them away from populated areas and wear a facemask. The urushiol can be carried airborne in the smoke and ash and can be inhaled, causing an exposure to the mouth and airway.

2)   After working with or in the plants, immediately remove clothing with protective disposable gloves. Wash the clothes immediately and wipe down (with alcohol and water) any tools used while working in the plants, your boots, and any materials which came in contact with the contaminated clothes and tools. Placing contaminated clothes in a hamper or leaving contaminated shoes and equipment in a place where others can touch them could cause them to contract poison ivy.

3)   Thoroughly wash the exposed areas using warm water and Dawn dish soap as soon as possible after a potential exposure. The urushiol (oil from the plant) will bond to the skin and cause irritation and blisters within 6 hours. Wash and rinse the exposed areas 3 times with the dish soap to greatly diminish or even prevent a rash or blisters. If this does not help, use traditional methods to treat the rash or, in extreme cases, see a physician.


If you did not clean up quickly enough or your skin is so sensitive that cleaning didn’t help, redness and swelling will appear within 12 to 48 hours. Blisters and itching will follow. The blisters are not contagious, nor can the fluid from them further spread the rash on the affected person’s body. Further spreading is probably due to the urushiol absorbing at different rates into the skin. However, it is recommended not to scratch the blisters because your hands could have germs on them that might cause an infection. The rash and blisters will disappear in 14 to 20 days, but most people require relief from the itching and seek some form of treatment. For mild cases, wet compresses or soaking in cool water may help. Oral antihistamines can also relieve the itching. Over-the-counter topical corticosteroids or hydrocortisone such as Cortaid or Lanacort are safe and effective ways to temporarily relieve itching. For severe cases seek counsel from a dermatologist or physician as soon as possible after exposure.

One final word of caution- Poison ivy can be contracted year-round. The resin (urushiol) does not dry up in the winter. Also, dead poison ivy may still contain the resin. Cases have been reported by researchers where rashes have occurred from exposure to plants that were in specimen jars for up to five years. Remember to train your summer staff before sending them out. It can save you and them time, money, and discomfort.

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