I wrote this up for GardenWeb; I might as well post it here, too.
I am in the process of eradicating poison ivy from my yard. It will take a few years, but I’ve made significant progress.
I do my removal by wearing plastic bags up my arms, held on with rubber bands. Over that, I wear two layers of latex gloves. (Garden gloves under latex gloves might be an even better idea.) Aside from that I work in long pants, grubby tee-shirt, and old shoes, which would be inadequate if I rolled around in the poison ivy - but I work delicately so as not to have the plant touch any of my clothing. (A previous attempt taught me that the oils will soak through cloth, particularly when sweat is involved.)
I rip the plant from the ground down to the last root, as far as possible. Either my husband follows me around with a trash can, or I leave the whole plant in the woods in a place I know nobody will walk, exposed to the air to die and rot in place. Vines running up trees get snipped with clippers and left to die on the tree. The clippers never get handled with bare hands when used elsewhere in the garden.
I only do this for about half an hour before running for the shower. My husband acts as my spotter, to open doors and help me get my clothes in the wash without touching anything. The shoes live in the garage, and are only used with care for yard-work.
The later in the season, the less potent the poison ivy is; and also the cooler the weather, the less chance I have of producing sweat that could cause the urushiol to soak through my cloths, so I see this as being safest during the autumn. I’ve even pulled the roots by feel after the leaves have all dropped off for the season. (They are shallow, hairy, and brittle.)
I am particularly sensitive to urushiol – mangoes and cashews cause me to break out in a similar rash – so I’m decidedly not casual about this poison-ivy-killing business. This has been a learning process for me, and I have had a number of rashes to tell me how I’ve made mistakes. My biggest mistakes were these:
Underestimating how nasty poison ivy is. I once stomped a tiny shoot with my shoe, and later handled that shoe bare-handed and then picked my nose. The result was as plain as the nose on my face. :)
Overestimating the effectiveness of latex gloves and plastic bags. A very small tear, combined with a lot of sweat, caused my husband to have some very large rashes.
Letting the torn vines freely touch my clothing. Vines will suddenly lose their grip on the ground and lash at you, so pull carefully. Consider your clothes contaminated from the moment you start pulling, but still pull gently to minimize contact.
Scratching my sweaty skin with my contaminated garden gloves through my clothing. Teamed up with profuse sweat and repeated exposures over the course of an hour, I had one large rash from neck to knees from that mistake. Once your hands are contaminated, do not touch anything but poison ivy plants.
“I’m already exposed, so I might as well keep going.” As soon as I catch myself thinking this, I know it is time to hit the shower.
Not scrubbing enough in the shower. This stuff needs to be ground off the skin as if it were motor oil or oil paint. It doesn’t help that it is entirely invisible! Scrub until you think you are clean. Then repeat. And maybe repeat again.
Not scrubbing my entire body thoroughly. I got it on the back of my neck once because in the shower, once, I was careful to scrub where I was exposed, but only washed the back of my neck casually before my hands were adequately clean. That casual washing served only to spread the oil to the back of my neck.
It takes about a week for me to develop a rash when I am exposed – but I have discovered that a particularly bad rash will develop sooner. If you start developing a rash within 24 hours, call your doctor.
The rashes don’t spread by being scratched, because by the time there is a rash, the urushiol has long since soaked in. However, sometimes the itch will precede noticeable blisters, so it may appear that the scratching is causing the rash.
Popping the blisters hurts like hell but seems to make them go away more quickly.
Ice helps keep the itch down. A soak in a very hot shower will cause the itch to intensify – and then go down to a bare minimum for some hours. (A hot hair dryer can also be used to this purpose.)
Before deliberately tangling with poison ivy, stock up with anti-itch remedies, rolls of bandages, and tape.
One last note – if you have never tangled with poison ivy (or poison oak, or poison sumac) before, but are contemplating doing so, or you are contemplating working in an area that you know to be hosting the plant, I suggest two things. First, learn too identify the plant so well that you can spot it even when driving by in a car. (If you can spot it from a car, you are never likely to look down and realize belatedly that you are standing in the stuff.) Also learn to tell the difference between the plant and similar plants that grow in the same habitat. For instance, poison ivy often grown in the company of jack-in-the-pulpit and Virginia creeper, and poison sumac looks a bit like staghorn sumac.
Second, do a test to find out your tolerance level, to know what you are in for when you make a mistake. (And I did say “when”, not “if”.) To do this, using latex gloves, snap a leaf off of a poison ivy vine. Dab one tiny dot of the sap on the skin of your ankle, or other out-of-the-way spot. Leave the sap to dry. Circle the location with a marker. Keep track of how long it takes a rash to develop, and how big the rash gets.
The last time I tried this was with a pinhead of poison sumac sap. The sap turned black by the second day. It took about half a week for the rash to start to appear, and after about two weeks the rash was at its peak, dense with little bubbles and as big around as a silver dollar.