How to Get Rid of Poison Ivy in Your Yard

poison ivy leaves in mulch

You remember to stay far away from the backyard poison ivy patch, but Fido isn’t so aware of the poisonous hazard. Fido runs through the yard, rolls through the poison ivy, and comes running back into the house. He jumps on your lap for lots of petting, and you are unknowingly getting poison ivy oil all over you!

To keep you and your family safe from the plant’s itchy and unbearable rash, turn to our guide on how to get rid of poison ivy in your yard. 

How to identify poison ivy

You may have learned to stay away from poison ivy with the help of this old saying: “Leaves of three, leave them be.” While this phrase isn’t the most accurate way to identify the poisonous plant, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be cautious. Poison ivy has its fair share of look-alikes, including Virginia creeper and boxelder. 

Poison ivy is a woody perennial that can climb up trees and fences with its hairy aerial rootlets, creep along the ground, or mimic a shrub. In autumn, its leaves change from bright green to bright orange, red, or yellow. In spring, it produces white waxy fruits and flowers. 

The alternate leaves growing along the plant’s stem have three leaflets. These leaflets are typically elliptic in shape and can have toothed, smooth, or lobed margins. The middle leaflet grows on a long stalk, while the two adjacent leaflets grow directly from the stem. 

How to get rid of poison ivy in your yard

Before you battle your poison ivy, you’ll need to take the necessary precautions. If you’re not careful, you could develop an itchy rash known as contact dermatitis. To keep yourself safe from the plant, remember to wear protective clothing, including: 

  • Disposable, waterproof gloves
  • Long-sleeved shirt
  • Long pants
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Tall socks
  • Eye protection

After working closely with the ivy, immediately wash the clothes in a separate laundry load. You don’t wait to spread the plant oil to your laundry hamper or dresser. 

Remember to clean any garden tools you use with rubbing alcohol. Why? Because the plant’s oil can stay active on surfaces for years. 

Poison ivy is a difficult plant to get rid of. If the weed were easy to remove, homeowners like you wouldn’t be having such a problem with it. If you want to go the natural route, your best removal options are cutting or hand-pulling the ivy. The chemical method involves spraying the plant with herbicide, sometimes more than once. 

Cutting 

Poison ivy won’t tolerate repeated cutting. Cutting the plant down to ground level is a straightforward control method, but you’ll need to be persistent. It can take years of cutting back the plant before you’re able to successfully kill it. Poison ivy has a complex root system, so a snip now and then isn’t going to stop it from regrowing. 

Regularly mowing the poison ivy is also an option, but it’s not the most ideal. This approach results in the mower spitting the oils and shredded leaves out in all directions, putting you and your family at greater risk of exposure. 

Hand-pulling

Gently hand-pulling poison ivy is an effective control method for small patches of poison ivy, but it requires you to get nice and cozy with the plant. If you can remove poison ivy’s root system by pulling the plant out from the ground, you have a good chance of removing the weed for good. If you’re trying to uproot a large patch of poison ivy, then use a shovel to help you dig up the roots. 

Herbicides

If you want minimal exposure to the plant and a fast solution, consider using chemicals. Spraying poison ivy with an herbicide containing glyphosate, triclopyr, and 2,4-D can help get the plant under control in your yard. 

But remember, applying chemical solutions is not a one-and-done process. Poison ivy is a relentless weed, and it’s hard to get rid of. You may need to apply the herbicide repeatedly to get the plant under control. 

For best results, apply the herbicide at the right time of year. It’s always a good idea to refer to your specific product’s instructions on the appropriate application method, but the following tips from the Clemson Cooperative Extension are a good guideline: 

  • Glyphosate is most effective when you apply it two weeks before and two weeks after the plant’s full bloom in early summer. 
  • Apply triclopyr after the leaves fully expand in the spring and before leaf color changes in autumn. 
  • 2,4-D offers the best control in late spring or early summer when the ivy is actively growing.

Always read your product’s instructions. Misapplying herbicides can be hazardous to the environment, animals, and people. Many herbicides also will harm plants you want to grow, such as your turfgrass. 

What parts of the poison ivy plant are poisonous?

All parts of the plant are poisonous. The leaves, roots, stems, and fruits all produce a long-lasting oil called urushiol that causes an itchy rash when it comes in contact with the skin. 

The oil can last for years on surfaces. If your tools or clothes are covered in urushiol, you can get a rash just by touching the oil. If Fido or Ginger rolled around in the ivy patch, you could get a poison ivy rash just by petting their fur. 

The plant is poisonous all year-round, including wintertime. You’ll want to be especially careful around the plant in spring and summer because that’s when the oil content is highest. 

Pro Tip: Never burn poison ivy. Inhaling the smoke could result in respiratory problems and lung inflammation.  

Where does poison ivy like to grow?

Poison ivy is common throughout the U.S., except for Hawaii, Alaska, and parts of the west coast. It thrives in wooded areas, which is why you need to be extra careful on those hiking and camping trips. 

But poison ivy can grow in many different environments. It can grow along sidewalks, climb up your tool shed, and pop up in a bustling city park. And, as you already know, your garden and backyard aren’t immune to the plant either.  

FAQ about poison ivy

1. What should I do if I touch poison ivy?

Despite wearing long sleeves, you’ll quickly discover how difficult it can be to avoid contact with poison ivy as you attempt to control it. If the urushiol gets on your skin, gently wash your skin with soap and cool water as soon as possible. 

The sooner you clean the skin, the better. Waiting too long to wash the skin won’t do much good. You also can use rubbing alcohol instead of soap. 

Remember to wash your hands after cleaning the affected areas and clean underneath your fingernails, too. 

2. What does a poison ivy rash look like?

Signs and symptoms of a poison ivy rash include:
Itching
Redness
Blisters
Swelling
Difficult breathing (if you inhaled the smoke of burning poison ivy)

A poison ivy rash will typically appear as straight lines because that’s how the plant will likely rub against you. But if you wear a piece of clothing or touch fur with oil on it, the rash may appear more spread out. A poison ivy rash usually develops 12 to 48 hours after exposure and lasts two to three weeks.  

3. How do I treat a poison ivy rash?

A poison ivy rash will eventually go away on its own after two to three weeks. But sometimes, the itching can feel unbearable, making poison ivy treatment necessary. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following home remedies to help relieve itchiness

Apply calamine lotion or creams containing menthol.
Apply an over-the-counter cortisone cream or ointment (Cortizone 10) for the first few days.Soak the affected area in a cool-water bath that has a half-cup (100 grams) of baking soda or an oatmeal-based bath product in it.
Take oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl) or loratadine (Alavert, Claritin, and others).
Place cool, wet compresses on the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes. Repeat the compressions several times a day.

Contact your primary care doctor if your rash covers a large area, becomes infected, or persists for more than a few weeks. They might refer you to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in skin conditions. 

You also should see your doctor for medical advice if:
Your skin continues to swell
The rash affects your mouth, eyes, or genitals
You develop a fever greater than 100 degrees
The blisters are oozing pus

4. Are poison ivy rashes contagious?

If you have an allergic reaction to poison ivy, you cannot spread the rash to other people. A person can only get the rash if they come in contact with urushiol oil.

5. Will a poison ivy rash spread if I scratch it?

It’s not uncommon for a poison ivy rash to grow in size, but the spreading is not caused by scratching the rash (unless you have the urushiol oil under your fingernails). 

A poison ivy rash will only occur where the urushiol oil has touched the skin. If the blisters happen to burst, the rash will still not spread because they don’t contain the urushiol oil. 

Here are some reasons why your poison ivy rash may be spreading: 
Different parts of your body may be absorbing the oil at different rates. 
You may be experiencing repeated exposure to contaminated objects, such as clothes or tools. 
Oil may still be trapped underneath your fingernails. As you continue to itch areas of your body, the nails will consequently spread the oil. 

Leaves of three, the pros will weed

Poison ivy is a stubborn weed. Controlling the weed takes patience and persistence, and you risk exposing yourself to the oil along the way. Why go through all that trouble when you can hire professional weed control

After all, the pros have the proper equipment, safety gear, and commercial herbicides to take care of the problem. Let the pros get cozy with the plant while you stay far, far away. 

Main Photo Credit: cygnus921 | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Amy Stenglein