Poison Ivy Pictures and Identification Tips

Poison ivy is a type of weed that can cause painful, itchy rashes because of the oil—or urushiol resin—in its leaves, stems, and roots. That's why it's important to know how to identify the plant so you can avoid it.

What Does Poison Ivy Look Like

Eastern Poison Ivy
Eastern poison ivy. Robert H. Mohlenbrock/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/USDA SCS. 1991

There are actually two types of poison ivy in the United States: eastern and western. The good news is that both resemble each other to a certain extent. Both grow as shrubs, with the western type growing to be about 30 inches tall and the eastern type growing more like a vine along the ground or as a fuzzy climbing vine on trees.

Here are some notable features you use to identify poison ivy:

  • Leaves: Both the eastern and western types of poison ivy have green or red leaves that grow in three-pointed leaf clusters—which is why you have likely heard the phrase "Leaves of three, let it be." The edges of these leaves can be toothed or smooth, while the surface of the leaf is smooth and glossy or dull. Generally, the leaves are about 5 inches long.
  • Berries: Depending on the season, poison ivy plants may have flowers or berries in dense clusters close to the vine. The flowers can be tough to spot, but the berries are waxy and can be light green, grey or white.
  • Roots: Stems of poison ivy will root where they make contact with the ground, which means that even if the root is cut down the stem, it can continue growing. This makes the plant difficult to kill because pieces of the root can regenerate into new plants.
Aerial Roots of Poison Ivy
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Where It's Located

Eastern Poison Ivy
Eastern poison ivy. Jennifer Anderson/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Poison Ivy grows all over the United States, except in Alaska and Hawaii. It can be found in forests and wetlands, on beaches, along streams, and even in urban parks and yards.

The two types of poison ivy do have slightly different geographic ranges:

  • Eastern poison ivy: As its name suggests, generally grows in the eastern part of North America, though it can be found as far west as Arizona. It can be found as far north as Quebec and as far south as Florida.
  • Western poison ivy: It generally is found across western states and the Great Plains, though it can also be found in the northeast.

Identifying Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy Closeup Picture
Vincent Iannelli, MD

Poison ivy has these features:

  • A cluster of three leaflets
  • The middle leaflet has a longer stalk (petiole) than the other two
  • The leaflets are fatter near their base
  • The leaflets are elliptical in shape with slight lobes
  • All three leaflets are all about the same size
  • There are no thorns along the stem
  • You may see clusters of green or white berries
  • Aerial roots may be visible on the stem

Tips for Avoiding

Because simply brushing past poison ivy can cause a rash, the best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is to take precautions while you are outdoors. Here are some tips:

  • Wear the right clothing: Wear long pants and shirts with long sleeves. Gloves can also help you minimize the chances of accidentally being exposed to poison ivy.
  • Lotion: Bentoquatam lotion can be worn to protect poison ivy rashes because it's it protects your skin from the plant oils that cause the rash.
  • Wear the right footwear: Boots are best if you're hiking because they will protect your ankles and your feet. But always wear closed-toe shoes anywhere where poison ivy might be growing.
  • Avoid areas where poison ivy is common: Poison Ivy tends to grow in areas that get partial sunlight, so try to stick to paths and trails, and avoid shortcuts through the woods.
  • Know what to look for and be alert: It can be helpful to teach your kids how to spot it too.

Other Forms to Watch For

While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are differences in appearance between ivy, oak, and sumac. Poison oak and sumac are in the same Toxicodendron genus and have the same urushiol, or rash-causing oil. As a result, they tend to be lumped in with poison ivy, even though they look slightly different. All three grow across North America.

What Does Poison Oak Look Like?

Atlantic Poison Oak
Atlantic poison oak. Robert H. Mohlenbrock/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/USDA SCS. 1991

Poison oak has three leaflets, like poison ivy, but its leaves have rounded edges, fuzzy undersides, and are generally a lighter color. It also is more shrub-like. There are two kinds:

  • Pacific poison oak: It generally grows in states west of the Rocky Mountains.
  • Atlantic poison oak: It is generally found in the southeastern states.

What Does Poison Sumac Look Like?

Poison Sumac
Poison sumac. Robert H. Mohlenbrock/USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database/USDA SCS. 1991

Poison sumac has more than three leaves: it can have clusters of seven to 13 smooth leaflets arranged in pairs. It also grows as a shrub or small tree that can grow as tall as 30 feet. In the fall, its leaves can turn orange-red and its stem is red. It generally grows in the southeastern United States as a small tree or shrub.

Poison Ivy Rash

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

The classic rash of poison ivy on a child's arm.
The classic rash of poison ivy on a child's arm. Vincent Iannelli, MD

Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are different plants, but they trigger the same kind of itchy, blistery, red rash—or contact dermatitis—because they all have the same oil: urushiol, which is an irritant.

The oil is found in all parts of the plant: the leaves, the stems, and the roots. The rash can be caused by direct contact with the plant or by touching pets, clothes, or lawnmower bags that came into contact with the plant.

If you think you have touched poison ivy, immediately wash your skin and clothes to remove some of the oil and hopefully lessen the severity of the rash and prevent the oil from spreading on your body or around your home.

Symptoms

Symptoms of poison ivy usually develop within 8-12 hours after exposure and can last for a week or longer, depending on how much urushiol got on the skin.

A poison ivy rash has these features:

  • Red bumps that appear in straight lines or streaks
  • Swelling
  • Itching
  • Painful blisters or vesicles filled with fluid

The symptoms of poison ivy can worsen over days, depending on how much urushiol you were exposed to—especially if you don't apply home treatments. People can also experience difficulty breathing if they inhale smoke from burning poison ivy.

Remedies

There is no real cure for poison ivy, but while it can be painful and irritating, it does not generally require medical treatment because you can use home remedies to relieve the pain. Some home remedies you can try include:

  • OTC cortisone creams: Topical steroid creams can help heal poison ivy rash faster.
  • Anti-itch creams: There are a variety of creams and lotions that can help soothe the itchiness of the rash, such as Calamine Lotion, Caladryl Clear Topical Analgesic Skin Lotion, or Aveeno Anti-Itch Cream with Natural Colloidal Oat.
  • OTC antihistamines: These include Benadryl (or diphenhydramine) and can help control the itching.
  • Cool compresses: Apply cool, wet compresses to the itchy areas for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day.
  • Cool oatmeal bath: Cool or lukewarm oatmeal baths can help relieve some of the itchiness and provide relief while the rash heals.

When To Seek Medical Attention

Seek urgent medical attention if you experience any of these severe symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Trouble swallowing
  • The rash is swelling

You should also seek medical attention if the rash is on your face, genitals, or a large area of your body.

A Word From Verywell

Even if you think you're able to easily identify poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac, it's possible to bump into it accidentally or get a rash through contact with the oils on pets or clothes. If you start developing a rash, be sure to administer home remedies or OTC treatments as soon as possible to relieve your symptoms. You can also call your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.

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