‘Leaves of three, let it be’ - dealing with a summer itch

Perhaps it comes at the end of a fun summer outing or picnic. Or maybe after an afternoon of yard work. You feel happy, tired and – itchy.

Really itchy. Uh-oh.

“Knowing more about poison ivy and how it grows might help you avoid rash problems later,” University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator Rhonda Ferree said. “Remember the old adage: leaves of three, leave it be.”

Poison ivy can grow under a number of environmental conditions. It can be found in fencerows, under trees, even in home gardens, where it is likely planted through seeds in bird droppings, Ferree said.

“When it grows among desirable plants, poison ivy is a challenge to control,” she said.

The “old adage” refers to poison ivy’s leaves - each leaf is made up of three smaller leaflets, usually with smooth edges and a few indentations. It is sometimes bushy, but usually creeps around plants and up trees and buildings. In the late spring and early summer, it develops tiny green flowers that develop into gray or white berries.

If you do come into contact with poison ivy, the first thing to do is run cold water over the contact site, said Dr. Ketan Morker, a physician at Kishwaukee Medical Associates in Sycamore. After rinsing with cold water, wash the site with a mild soap, he said. It’s best if you can wash the site within 30 minutes of the contact to rinse away the plant’s oils.

Tecnu and Zanfel are two over-the-counter cleansers specifically marketed to prevent poison ivy contact from turning into a rash.

“Clothing should be removed, too, and should be washed,” Morker said. Wear vinyl gloves when handling clothing that has touched poison ivy, he said; chemicals from the plant can transfer to rubber or latex gloves.

After cleansing the contact site, if an itchy rash develops, you can use any over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream to control the itch, Morker said. Antihistamines like Benadryl can also ease discomfort.

If a person experiences swelling or a severe rash, or they are getting no relief from these remedies, they should see a doctor, Morker said.

There are several herbicides to control poison ivy, but all will also kill surrounding plants, so they should be handled with care, Ferree said. The best ways of dealing with the vine is to pull it - while wearing gloves - when the soil is wet; cutting and removing the main vine and then treating new shoots with herbicide as they appear; or treating the leaves with herbicide, but that could mean painting individual leaves to avoid harming nearby vegetation.

The most effective herbicide contains glyphosphate, such as Roundup, Ferree said. Formulas containing triclopyr can also be tried.

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