How To Spot and Get Rid of Poison Ivy in Your Yard

Updated: Sep. 17, 2023

Poison ivy is thriving, and more people than ever are feeling the consequences. Here's what to do if you think it's in your yard.

As COVID-19 cases soared in 2020, so did the number of people getting poison ivy rashes. It made sense, with more people spending time outdoors. But poison ivy is also becoming more prolific. And it’s no joke if you find some in your yard.

“Some of the worst poison ivy rash symptoms I’ve ever seen were pictures of people who were wearing short sleeve shirts and shorts and went into a weed patch [with a weed whacker] where there was poison ivy,” says John Jelesko, a plant scientist at Virginia Tech. “It cuts it up, exposes all of the urushiol [the oily mixture that causes the rash] and just throws it around.”

A poison ivy incident in his own yard prompted Jelesko to study it. Here’s more about this pernicious plant, and what to do if it gets too close to home.

What Is Poison Ivy?

A common plant native to much of North America. Its sap contains urushiol, which causes painful, itchy rashes. Because of the extreme discomfort, it’s considered an irritant plant — definitely one that should be carefully eradicated from your yard. But it won’t be easy.

“This resilient perennial is difficult to manage and remove due to its extensive underground root system that allows it to regrow and spread year after year,” says Teri Valenzuela, natural science manager at Sunday.

Poison ivy is related to other obnoxious plants like poison sumac, poison oak and poisonwood. All also contain urushiol, which is not actually a poison, but a human allergen.

While we don’t think fondly of any of these plants, they do serve important ecological functions, including feeding migratory birds through their fruit, seeds and insects that thrive in the leaf cover.

Where Does Poison Ivy Grow?

Hand In Glove With Pruner Cutting Poisons Ivy PlantNoDerog/Getty Images

Poison ivy can be found in most of the U.S. except on the West Coast, where its cousin poison oak is more prevalent. It’s common in the wild, but also in suburban yards, and along the borders of pathways and trails.

“The seeds are transmitted by birds,” says Jelesko. “Birds eat them in the fall and then move them around. So typically in spring, new plants will come up.”

Jelesko’s research has shown it’s most common where humans disturbed the land, like the edges of farms and towns, and in suburban yards. In those places, “the probability of encountering poison ivy just kind of skyrocketed,” he says. “So if humans are disrupting the environment, and there are birds around, you’re going to find a lot of poison ivy.”

Why Is Poison Ivy Getting Worse?

Two studies demonstrated the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes poison ivy to grow faster and larger. One study suggested it’s also producing more allergenic forms of urushiol.

“CO2 is essentially a fertilizer for plants and particularly C3 plants, which poison ivy is,” says Jelesko. “So at the very least, more CO2 means more poison ivy biomass, which means there’s more material for people to come into contact with.”

Also, more development means more disturbed ground, which presents more opportunity for poison ivy to take root.

All of this adds up to significantly more people suffering poison ivy rashes in recent years, a trend Jelesko says he verified with yet-to-be-published clinical research findings.

How To Identify Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy (Rhus radicans) a poisonous plant pictured growing on a log in the forestEd Reschke/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, the saying “leaves of three, let it be” is not entirely accurate. Many other plants have three leaves, and poison ivy actually can have five or even seven leaves of varying shapes. But often it does have three with smooth or notched edges that turn reddish in the fall.

“Poison ivy also grows as a hairy-looking vine on trees, and yes, the vine is toxic too so don’t touch,” says Valenzuela.

It can occur in many places in your yard, from the lawn and landscape beds to fence lines and wood piles. If you suspect you have it, you can tell for sure by tearing a leaf (wear disposable gloves and long sleeves when you do this) and spotting the sap on a piece of white paper. Poison ivy sap will come out white, then turn brown or black in 10 or 15 minutes.

Or you can buy a test kit. Either way, take precautions, because tearing open leaves exposes you to urushiol.

Can Dogs Get Poison Ivy?

No. Humans are the only creatures currently known to be negatively affected by poison ivy. Some animals, like deer, even eat it.

But dogs can definitely expose people to poison ivy if they walk through it and you pet them. If you think your pet has been exposed, bathe them while wearing gloves and long sleeves. Don’t touch them with bare hands until they’re thoroughly clean.

What Kills Poison Ivy?

Weeding or herbicides are the most effective methods. A growing number of landscape companies specialize in poison ivy removal.

“Poison ivy can be pulled if it’s small, but it can be difficult to fully extract all the underground tissues,” says John Kauffman, Ph.D, region technical manager for TruGreen.

If you go the weeding route, wear protective clothing, including sturdy gloves, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. When you’re finished, wash your clothing by itself (no “filling out the load” with anything else) and use a generous amount of laundry soap.

Conventional herbicides are generally effective when applied according to the directions on the label, says Kauffman. But use them sparingly because they can also harm soil, water, insects, birds and other wildlife. If you want to go a non-chemical route, Valenzuela suggests frequently cutting it back until it exhausts its energy to grow back.

How To Dispose of Poison Ivy

Whether you pull it or spray it, rake the remnants into a garbage bag or thick yard waste bag, then dispose of it with your usual yard waste, says Kauffman.

Do not burn poison ivy, since the urushiol can travel with the smoke and may cause some breathing irritation,” he says. “Avoid composting poison ivy tissues, because the urushiol can persist in the compost.”