SNYDER: Poison ivy can be arch nemesis for those who love outdoors


I was in the woods last weekend and suddenly found myself surrounded by my arch nemesis.

There was no way out. I was trapped. It was on the ground and in the trees. Everywhere I looked, poison ivy was lurking, waiting for me to brush against it and seal my fate.

Out of all the beautiful things Mother Nature filled our forest with, why couldn't she keep this plant to herself? Poison ivy has caused far more pain than any plant ever should.

As a young boy, the woods were my second home. That means I would undoubtedly wonder into a patch of poison ivy each summer. Then, like clockwork, the itching and burning would start. It was miserable. Sometimes, the evil plant would sentence me to bed rest for up to a week at a time, my face so swollen it hurt to blink.

With nearly 85 percent of the population allergic to urushiol, the skin irritant in poison ivy, it is no wonder reports of painful blisters go back centuries. In fact, Captain John Smith coined the name poison ivy in 1609.

Urushiol is extremely potent. I'm told just a quarter of an ounce of the stuff would be all that is needed to infect every person on earth. Worst yet, urushiol is quite difficult to get rid of. Once it gets on clothes or any other surface, the oil can remain active for up to five years if not treated.

So, how do you avoid a painful outbreak? The key is avoiding contact. That means you have to know where the plant likes to grow and what it looks like.

Poison ivy does not grow well in deep, thick forests or wide-open fields. It loves the brushy areas surrounding fields and at the edge of wood lines. One of the plants favorite places to grow is in most of our front yards, our flower beds.

While it takes some practice to be able to properly identify poison ivy, there are some general guidelines to follow. The most popular rule is: "Leaves of three, let it be." While there are exceptions, poison ivy generally grows in clusters of three leaves protruding from a single stem.

In the spring, fresh leaves are a very dark red and have a shiny appearance, an easy identifier. But in summer, the leaves turn a duller green and blend in with other plants. Detection is much harder.

Sometimes contact with poison ivy cannot be avoided. That is where rubbing alcohol comes in. After coming in contact with the plant, immediately flush any exposed skin with rubbing alcohol. Then, wash the area with plenty of water.

Only use soap after cleaning with alcohol and flushing with fresh water. Often, soap can spread urushiol instead of removing it. Follow the same process for any clothes or gear that may have been in contact with poison ivy.

For most of us, poison ivy is an annual nuisance that comes with the territory. If you spend much time outdoors or in the woods, you are bound to get a nasty rash. But with a little precaution, the pain and itching can be kept to a minimum.

Mother Nature gave us plenty of wonderful things. Poison ivy is not one of them.

— Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at