I spent five years as a site surveyor in Georgia and frequently encountered poison ivy.
How to Prevent Poison Ivy
This article describes tried-and-true methods to prevent a poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac outbreak. I learned these techniques during a five-year stint as a surveyor in Georgia. I described this a little more in the article, Natural Cure to Poison Ivy.
Here, read about washing after an outdoor venture, wearing proper clothing, and avoiding the poisonous plants of the sumac family.
Washing After an Outdoor Trip
Poison ivy and poison sumac plants produce an oil called urushiol. It dries and becomes dust. The oil can transfer via direct contact. The dust can be carried by wind in the late summer when the plants begin to die and dry up.
When you arrive home, you need to basically decontaminate. The military process is careful and includes two main techniques designed to prevent any contact with the outside of clothing or any chemical that may be on the exterior of clothing (usually a MOPP suit). So, here is the expert process:
Short version: Remove clothing without touching exterior portions. Without scrubbing, wash all skin liberally with soap, concentrating on exposed areas.
Detailed Version: First, do not touch your clothing with your hands. Using gloves, unbutton your shirt and slip it off without touching the outside. If you're wearing a pullover design like a t-shirt, grab the collar and pull it over your head without touching your face. Pull your arms out of the sleeves carefully, without turning them inside out. Slide the tee-shirt over your head.
Place all clothing directly onto a towel or blanket that can be washed with all the clothing you are going to remove. After you have washed your person (next step), and put on clean clothing, wrap up the exposed clothing by pulling the four corners of the towel over the pile of dirty clothes like a hobo's bundle. Take it directly to the washing machine and put it through the long cycle with plenty of soap.
Keep the removed clothing on the towel. Don't let the poison ivy dust get onto your carpet, your bed, your dresser, or any other thing. If you do, wash that surface, too.
Wash Your Person
Short version: Using copious amounts of soap but no scrubbing, wash and rinse your hands, then your face, and then any other part that may have been exposed to brush or to wind in late summer.
Detailed version: Wash your hands first. This prevents cross-contamination of other parts of your person. If you can wash your hands as soon as you return to your vehicle, do it. When surveying, I started to wash my arms as soon as I returned to the office. This ended the regular rash outbreaks before I learned this lesson:
A poison ivy rash is a chemical reaction between your skin and the plant's oils. It takes about an hour to 90 minutes before this reaction begins. If you extinguish the urushiol before it burns the skin, you save yourself a lot of healing and discomfort.
After your hands are clean, wash your face. Next, wash the areas of your body with the thinnest skin first. Also concentrate on any areas where clothing or equipment has been rubbing your skin: waistline and shoulders, for example.
If you are a guy and have been urinating in the woods, you want to wash your equipment. The reaction hits the thinnest skinned areas first.
Remember: no scrubbing. Scrubbing can cause subtle scratches on the skin. These little crevices are big enough to harbor the poison ivy oil and provide direct contact with the skin, a direct bypass of the natural human oils on the epidermis, which protect us.
Clean Your Gear and Equipment
After washing your person, clean your equipment
Wash everything, especially boots and shoes. It is possible for "recurring poison ivy" to hit a person who walked through poison ivy, then contaminates himself every time he picks up his shoes to put them on or take them off. Wash backpacks, tents, shovel handles, anything. Do this especially if someone develops a poison ivy rash after a trip.
Wash your pets
Dogs and cats are not afraid of the brush. A dog, especially, can collect oil and dust on his fur. That transfers to anyone who pets the animal or shares a sofa cushion with them. Some people who have no idea how they got poison ivy got it from petting good ol' Rex.
Wash everything that got touched
This becomes especially important if you are finding new rashes after a few days of the first one. This means there is oil on something: doorknobs, steering wheel, car door handle, keys, favorite hat, belt buckle...something has the oil on it. Touching the contaminated item brings it back to the hand, and then to any other place subsequently touched.
List of things to wash:
- map bag
- bedroll cover
- door knobs
- toilet flush-handle
- shampoo bottle
- body wash bottle
- anything else you might have touched, especially daily use items like doorknobs
Know What the Poison Sumac Family Looks Like
If you have ever had a strong reaction to poison ivy, the traditional saying goes, the next reactions will also be strong. After two extreme outbreaks of poison ivy, I also became reactive to mango and cashews.
The mango and the cashew are part of the poison Sumac family! In cashews, the oil is in the nuts themselves. If I eat too many of those, my lips blister and I can get a sore throat (barely noticeable). In the mango, the oil is in the skin. The fruit itself is fine. I learned this on a packing trip through the jungle (a small one) in southern Mexico. We found a mango tree and cut into some fresh mangoes. With two knives between us, I opted to tear one open with my teeth. Bad idea! This again blistered my lips.
There are many descriptions and even a rhyme about how to identify poison ivy in the field. Forget it! There are plants without "leaves of three" that will burn you. Instead, do a Google image search, and look at all the photos. In late October, when the plants have dried out, the wind carries the dust and can coat backpacks, pants, and other plants and tree trunks.
Good rule of practice: Always wash with soap after returning from the field. Don't scrub your skin.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Dan Human from Niagara Falls, NY on December 21, 2011:
Great information. Though I am one of those lucky people immune to the effects of poison ivy (currently), I am always vigilant for the people I take out with me. Nothing ruins a trip like being 3 days into the backcountry and have a person in your party sick with the rashes of poison ivy.
Attikos from East Cackalacky on December 21, 2011:
A man with solid advice. Good article, voted up and useful.