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How Did That Poison Ivy Get In My Garden?

How Did That Poison Ivy Get In My Garden?

By Dan Boelman RN, BSN, Zanfel Laboratories
Photographs courtesy of Dan Boelman

Poison ivy is a woody shrub or vine (ground vine or climbing vine) that sometimes seems to appear, almost magically, in our yards and gardens. Poison ivy seeds are spread almost exclusively by birds. Poison ivy is a dioecious species (meaning individual plants are either male or female). One study done by a horticulturist in the Philadelphia area found that a mature female poison ivy vine can produce as many as 30,000 seeds each year!

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These seeds are contained within berries which start out as green in summer, and then turn an ivory color at the end of the growing season. These berries are high in fat content and the birds know it. They are eaten by both migratory birds and overwintering birds, who spread them all over in their droppings.

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This is why poison ivy plants are less likely to be found out in the open. They are more likely to be found growing under places where birds eat, and where they perch: your fence, under your trees, under bird feeders, and in your berry patch.  Anywhere that birds hang out is where you’ll find poison ivy.

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All of this means that gardening and yard work are the most frequent activities that result in poison ivy exposures and subsequent allergic skin reactions. Activities like weeding, brush clearing, and pruning break open poison ivy stems, which tend to produce more severe skin reactions.

Poison Ivy Prevention While Gardening

  • Wear long sleeves and long pants (even on a hot day).
  • Wear vinyl gardening gloves. The poison ivy plants’ oily allergen can penetrate through cloth, leather, and even rubber, but not vinyl.
  • If exposure is suspected you have about 60 minutes to wash with regular soap and water to remove the poison ivy plants’ oil, before it has a chance to absorb into your skin. Despite old wives’ tales and internet lore, you really do only have 60 minutes.(1) The grease cutters in liquid dish soaps (Dawn, Dial Ultra) make those products a great choice to wash with during that first hour after exposure.
  • If it has been more than 60 minutes, Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash is an OTC product which can be used to remove the poison ivy oil that has already absorbed into your skin. This will either prevent the reaction, or make it dramatically less severe.(2)
  • Wash contaminated garden tools with water and liquid dish soap.
  • Wash contaminated clothing like normal in your washing machine. Any laundry detergent and any temperature of water will decontaminate your clothing and footwear.

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Poison Ivy Treatment After Outbreak of the Rash

  • Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash is the only product clinically shown to be able to remove the poison ivy oil from your skin anytime after the rash has broken out. This will totally stop the itching, and put your body in a position to quickly heal the rash. For mild to moderate cases it only takes one or two applications of Zanfel on each area to get the symptoms resolved.(3)
  • Other OTC products like calamine, oatmeal baths, 1% hydrocortisone, etc., are inexpensive and may temporarily reduce itching, but they do nothing to remove the poison ivy oil from the layers of your skin.
  • For severe or systemic cases of poison ivy rash, sometimes a trip to your local walk-in clinic is needed for a prescription steroid to control the outbreaks and bring down the inflammation.

For more information about poison ivy plants, and poison ivy rash treatment please feel free to contact the author at [email protected].

  • (1) Fisher AA. Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac Dermatitis. Part 1: Prevention – Soap and water, topical barriers, hyposensitization. Cutis 1996; 57:384-386.
  • (2) Stankewicz H, Cancel G, Eberhardt M, Melanson S. Effective Topical Treatment and Post Exposure Prophylaxis of Poison Ivy: Objective Confirmation. Ann Emerg Med 2007; 50(3) Suppl: S26-S27
  • (3) Davila A, Lucas J, Laurora M, Jacoby J, Reed J, Heller M. A new topical agent, Zanfel, ameliorates urushiol-induced Toxicodendron allergic contact dermatitis. Ann Emerg Med 2003; 42(4) Suppl: S98


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