Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Treatment of Poison Ivy Rash

The initial treatment for someone who has recently been exposed to any of these plants includes rinsing the affected area with copious amounts of warm water within 20-30 minutes of exposure to remove the oily plant resin. The effectiveness of rinsing decreases with the passage of time, as the oily plant resin is quickly absorbed into the skin. Some authorities recommend rinsing with rubbing alcohol, commercially available poisonous plant washes, or degreasing soaps and detergents.

What is poison ivy?

Poison ivy (Toxicodendron spp.) is a plant native to North America. The ivy is a climbing vine related to the cashew family. Poison ivy produces an oily chemical (urushiol) onto the surface of its leaves. When people come in contact with poison ivy, the urushiol can cause an allergic skin reaction that produces reddish, itchy, and painful inflammation of the skin (dermatitis). Close relatives of poison ivy plants that produce similar dermatitis symptoms are poison oak and poison sumac. In addition, mangoes and Japanese lacquer trees also can produce urushiol.

Is poison ivy contagious?

The poison ivy rash is an allergic reaction to an oily chemical from the leaf surface. This is an individual's allergic response to the chemical and is therefore not considered to be contagious. However, if a person comes in contact with the oily chemical from an affected patient's skin or clothing, then the urushiol could be passed on and a poison ivy rash may develop in a second individual. Direct contact with the oily chemical causes the symptoms and signs attributed to poison ivy.

What are the signs and symptoms of poison ivy dermatitis?

Symptoms of poison ivy dermatitis are as follows:

  • Localized mild skin redness (erythema)
  • Itchy skin

More serious symptoms may include the following:

Cortisone preparations and antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), hydroxyzine (Atarax, Vistaril), or cimetidine (Tagamet) may help reduce the symptoms and signs.

What is the incubation period for a poison ivy rash?

Dermatologists suggest that the first exposure to poison ivy has an incubation period of about five to 21 days before the rash appears. However, repeated exposure to poison ivy results in the rash appearing more quickly (about 12-48 hours). The diagnosis made with the patient's history and physical exam and usually requires no further tests. Consequently, the diagnosis is made by likely exposure to poison ivy and the appearance of the rash symptoms and signs described above.

Is it possible for a poison ivy rash to spread?

Poison ivy is not contagious and is not spread like an infectious disease from person to person. However, it can spread if the oily chemical on one person's skin is touched by another person. Even if the oil is on a person's skin or clothing, anyone who comes in contact with the irritant may develop symptoms. In addition, if the person who has poison ivy touches clothing or other areas of his body that has the irritant on the skin surface, they can spread the irritant to other parts of their own body. Consequently, it is very important to clean off the skin and clothing that has been exposed to the oil and to not scratch or touch the developing rash area if it has not been cleaned off as the person could transfer oil to the eyes, mouth, or other areas of the body. Showering with warm soapy water helps to remove the oil and can reduce the chance of any spread. Washing the exposed area within 20 minutes after exposure reduces the symptoms and signs of poison ivy rash.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/29/2016

Subscribe to MedicineNet's Allergy and Asthma Newsletter

By clicking Submit, I agree to the MedicineNet's Terms & Conditions & Privacy Policy and understand that I may opt out of MedicineNet's subscriptions at any time.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors