Poisonous Texas plants: Common myths and useful facts about poison ivy

July 15, 2020

When it comes to avoiding these poisonous Texas plants, it's important to know the facts and dispel the myths

A sprig of poison ivy on the ground

Whether you're out for a hike in the great Texas outdoors, or simply working in your garden, poison ivy is a pesky plant no one wants to run into. Like most things, having good information is essential when learning how to avoid contact so you can enjoy your time outdoors, rash-free. Read on as we discuss common myths and useful facts about poison ivy!

Common myths and misconceptions about poison ivy

Before we dive into some useful facts and first aid methods for poison ivy, let's dispel some of the myths you may have heard about this poisonous plant. 

Myth: Only the leaves are dangerous. Many people may think that if you avoid the foliage, you can simply pluck these problem plants up by holding the stem. This is not the case! Every part of the poison ivy plant has some amount of the oil on it.

Myth: Pet's can get poison ivy, too. Fortunately for our furry friends, poison ivy doesn't affect cats or dogs. In fact, humans and some primates are the only creatures that have an allergic reaction to its oils. Some animals, such as birds, will even eat the small berries that grow every year. However, just because it doesn't cause a reaction on your pets doesn't mean the oil can't stick to their fur and rub off on you later! 

Myth: You can only be affected by direct contact. While it is true that the majority of poison ivy rashes come from brushing up against it or otherwise touching it, this isn't the only way. It can sometimes rub off on clothes, shoes, or garden tools, eventually finding its way to your skin. Furthermore, if you are burning brush, the oils can remain in the smoke and potentially coat the inside of your throat and lungs. As you can imagine, this is much worse than simply touching it, and can often require medical attention. So before you start a fire, make sure that it's poison ivy free!

Myth: It's contagious. We've discussed ways that poison ivy oil can spread, but that doesn't mean it's contagious per se. A rash is simply an allergic reaction to the oil, and it won't spread on its own once the oil has been washed away. Itching can certainly spread it along your body, but this is only true if there is residual oil, either on your skin or beneath your fingernails for example. 

Myth: You'll know if you've touched it right away.  Sometimes, the allergic reaction caused by poison ivy can take 24-72 hours to occur. That's why people will often only realize they've come in contact with it the following day. 

Myth: It's not as bad the second time. It has been said if you've had poison ivy once, you can't get it again, or that it isn't as bad the second time around. This is not true! In fact, your immune system may learn to recognize the oil and have a heightened response with further exposure. 

Myth: It's not dangerous. Poison ivy is just an annoying rash, right? That's true for the most part, but it certainly can be dangerous. Like insect stings, most reactions are unpleasant, but not life-threatening. However, for some people, exposure to poison ivy can result in anaphylactic shock, which is a medical emergency. If you notice excessive swelling, a rapid pulse, tightness of the chest, or have difficulty breathing, seek medical attention immediately.

Useful facts about poison ivy

The reaction comes from urushiol. So what makes poison ivy so itchy? The culprit is a sap-like oil, called urushiol, which covers the leaves, roots, and stems of the plant. It can linger even after the plant is long dead, and is absorbed into human skin, causing the tell-tale irritating rash. 

Some people are resistant to poison ivy. For most people, poison ivy is just an annoying rash, and for others, it can be a medical emergency. However, for a small group of people (about 15%), it has a very minor effect, if any! 

It's not always easy to identify. Have you ever heard the rhyme, "Leaves of three, let it be"? While this advice is sound for the most part, the truth is that there are a lot of plants that have three leaves, and there are a number of different poison ivy species, too. In reality, poison ivy is not always that simple to identify, and people often confuse it with harmless plants. For example, people often confuse poison ivy with Virginia creeper, which is a vine with a similar leaf structure and appearance. To ensure that you don't accidentally grab the wrong three-leafed plant, it's important to know a little more about poison ivy identification.

The three leaves on a poison ivy plant come together at a single point, with two pointing off in opposite sides and the third pointing forward. While they generally have serrated, tooth-like edges, they can sometimes have smoother, less pronounced ridges. While they are typically green in the summer, poison ivy leaves change with the seasons, like many other plants. In the spring, they may have a dark red tint to them and turn yellow or orange in the fall. Finally, poison ivy leaves usually look glossy or waxy, but this is not always the case.

Poison oak is very similar to poison ivy. It has three leaves that are similar in structure and color. However, poison oak leaves are generally more rounded. Poison sumac is quite different, and actually has 7-13 leaves that grow out from the stem, with a single leaf at the end. Its leaves are more long and oval and have smooth edges. Despite their different appearances, all three share the same urushiol oil and therefore can cause a similar, if not identical reaction. 

It's not a true vine. When looking to identify poison ivy, it's not enough to assume the plant's identity based on where you see it growing alone. While it can grow on rocks and trees like a vine, it also can grow in small bushes on the ground.

Poison ivy treatment and symptoms

Now that we've laid out the facts about poison ivy, let's talk about the common symptoms and, perhaps more importantly, how to treat them!

Identifying symptoms. As we discussed previously, you won't always know when you've come in contact with poison ivy right away. However, once the oil has been absorbed by your skin, your body will begin the allergic reaction. Common symptoms include redness, itching, swelling, and blisters, potentially difficulty breathing. The severity of the symptoms depend on a variety of factors, such as how much of the urushiol oil gets on you, how much of your body came into contact with it, and how allergic you are to it. Unfortunately, a good dose of poison ivy can last up to two or three weeks. 

Use soap, water, and/or alcohol. If you believe you've come into contact with poison ivy, it's important to do what you can to rid your body of the oil. If you're able to act fast enough, you may be able to reduce the symptoms, or stop them altogether. To do this, wash the area in question thoroughly with warm water and soap, and make sure to rinse it all away after. If you have rubbing alcohol, this can also be an effective way to remove the oil from your skin. 

Alleviate symptoms with medical treatments. Once the allergic reaction has started, there are a number of over-the-counter medications you can use to soothe the itching and burning sensations. Cortisone cream and calamine lotions bought from your local pharmacy can reduce the itching, and oral antihistamines can provide relief, too. Furthermore, common allergy medications, like Benadryl and Claritin can help you sleep if the rash makes it difficult to do so. 

Find relief with home remedies. In addition to the medical treatments described above, there are a number of home remedies that have proved to be quite helpful over the years. While some may be more effective than others, things like aloe vera, baking soda and water mixtures, oatmeal pastes, and even cucumber slices can cool and soothe the nasty poison ivy rash.  

Finally, always make sure to keep the rash clean and avoid itching it whenever possible. Itching can lead lead to infection, and further complicate an already unpleasant experience. And as always, if you are ever worried about swelling, excessive pain, or difficulty breathing, don't wait: go the the emergency room immediately. 

A vine of poison ivy growing on a tree

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.