Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

A lot of people seek the answer to the question “Is Poison Ivy Contagious?” When looking at this question you need to understand what ‘contagious’ means. According to thefreedictionary.com contagious means:

“Capable of being passed on by direct contact with a diseased individual or by handling clothing, etc., contaminated with the causative agent”

We will keep this basic definition in mind as we move forward with our discussion about whether or not poison ivy can be described as contagious.

What is Urushiol

Urushiol is the resin that is found on poison ivy and it is the substance that causes the horrible rashes and blisters that you get when exposed to poison ivy. The main thing that you need to remember about urushiol is that it is highly potent and that it can affect you far more easily than you may think. Here are some urushiol facts for you to think about:

  • Only one nanogram, which is one billionth of a gram, is needed in order for you to break out in a rash. This makes it very difficult to avoid contact if there is any urushiol in the area.
  • Keeping this in mind it is a little scary to note that, on average, when you come into contact with urushiol you are infected with 100 nanograms of the substance. This is what makes the rash to bad and the blisters so difficult to handle.
  • In order to infect every single person on the earth with poison ivy, you would only need ¼ ounce of urushiol. This statistic is just to illustrate how incredibly potent the substance really is.
  • The amount of urushiol that can be contained on the head of a pin is enough to make 500 people start to itch.
  • Even urushiol that is several centuries old can still have a negative effect on people who have sensitive skin.

So, as you can see, the substance urushiol is not something to be trifled with. When we consider the question of whether or not poison ivy is contagious, urushiol is central to the discussion. If we consider the definition above, which states that a contagion is “capable of being passed on by direct contact with a diseased individual or by handling clothing contaminated with the causative agent”, then we could consider any person or item of clothing or even a surface that still has urushiol on it to be contagious. So in this sense of the word, urushiol is contagious, as it can be transferred from clothes, animals’ coats, or from your skin. It is very important, therefore, that you take all precautions when dealing with poison ivy. This includes thoroughly washing all of the clothes and tools that you were using at the time.

Is Poison Ivy Contagious: The Myths vs. the Facts

There are a number of myths that we come across when considering the “Is poison ivy contagious?” question, so it is important that you know what is true and what is not. Myths include:

  • The rash itself is contagious
  • Breaking the blisters will cause the skin illness to spread
  • You can catch poison ivy form being near the plants
  • Dead poison ivy plants pose no threat
  • If you have never experienced side effects before you are immune

Myth

The poison ivy rash itself is contagious if you come into contact with someone who has it. Some people seem to think that, as with chickenpox, you can ‘catch’ the actual rash just by being around someone else who already has it.

Fact

This is not true. The rash itself is not in any way contagious and you cannot catch the rash simply by being around someone who has it. Rubbing your own poison ivy rash that has appeared on your skin will not cause it to spread to other parts of your body, nor will it cause the rash to spread to other people. This is because poison ivy simply doesn’t work in the same way as viruses like chickenpox. The only way for an infected person to spread the poison ivy rash to someone else is if they still have some of that nasty resin urushiol on their hands or clothes and then transfers it to someone else.

Myth

In conjunction with the previous myth, some people believe that if you break the huge and horrible blisters that come with poison ivy poisoning you will release fresh urushiol which will then spread to the rest of your body and create fresh symptoms elsewhere.

Fact

Again this is a myth and is not true. There is no urushiol contained within the blisters so you will not be releasing any of the toxic substance if you break the blisters. The fluid contained in the blisters is a product of the human body. However, if you break the blisters your wounds may become infected. It is necessary to get rid of the excess fluid and dry out the blisters so in some cases you should have a doctor withdraw the fluid from your skin.
If you do find that the rash spreads to areas of the skin which you are certain did not come into direct contact with the urushiol, you may have a systemic reaction, which will demand medical attention.

Myth

It is possible to ‘catch’ poison ivy simply being near the plants.

Fact

This is another untrue statement. Direct contact with the plant is needed in order to release the urushiol that results in the rash. So if you can avoid direct contact with the plants then you will be fine. However, you need to make sure that you do not let yourself get exposed to the ivy in any airborne form as this can have dire consequences for your eyes and lungs. If poison ivy is being burned (which is, by the way, a very bad idea), stay well clear and do not inhale the smoke.

Myth

If the poison ivy is dead, you have nothing to fear.

Fact

It is important that you take all of the same precautions with dead poison ivy plants as you would with live ones as the urushiol on the plants remains active and toxic for about five years after the plant is dead. This means that you stand a good chance of getting a poison ivy infection after you have already finished removing all of the plants from your garden. This also means that when you dispose of dead poison ivy that you should take the necessary precautions to ensure that the garbage man or anyone else that may handle the plant matter is not in fact infected by the urushiol. Sealing the dead ivy in plastic bags may be the best method of dealing with the plants.

Myth

It is possible to be immune to the urushiol in poison ivy.

Fact

Although it is possible to be immune to poison ivy, it is also highly unlikely as 90% of the population is allergic. However, in some cases people experience worse symptoms each time that they are exposed. They may consider themselves immune if they experience very mild or nonexistent symptoms the first time they are exposed to the plant. These people should avoid the plant in future anyway as the chances are that they will experience far worse symptoms the next time that they come into contact with it.

Myth

Eating poison ivy will allow your body to build up an intolerance, and will therefore make you immune.

Fact

Some people have actually tried this, but a poison ivy plant is something that you should never ingest. Nor should you eat any other plants for that matter, as you just do not know what could be poisonous. Eating this plant could be extremely dangerous and may be life threatening.