Poison ivy

Originally Published: October 1, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 27, 2012
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Dear Alice,

This question is about poison ivy. Is it contagious? Does it spread to other parts of the afflicted person's body? Can someone else get it from touching them? My husband broke out with poison ivy last week and has been covering himself with Calamine on doctor's orders. The cream is not doing much, and the Dr. did not give us much info about poison ivy. Can you enlighten us further?

Thanks.

—Ivy

Dear Ivy,

You know what they say — leaves of three, let it be! Poison ivy is the infamous three-leaved plant that climbs, creeps, and grows in bushes in certain areas of North America. Due to its poisonous leaf resin or oil, poison ivy causes an allergic skin reaction called contact dermatitis. Eighty percent of people are very allergic and will show symptoms of an itchy, blistery rash within 48 hours of contact with the plant.

Poison ivy is contagious only by spreading the actual plant oil/resin; the rash itself is not contagious and does not spread. Scratching the rash during the first few days could spread the oil to other parts of the infected person's body, or to another person who might be allergic. A few good showers and a laundry should eliminate any residue of the plant oil.

The problem with poison ivy is that there is no specific treatment. Unfortunately, the affected person must simply wait it out. A few home and over the counter remedies may help soothe itchy skin. These include:

  • Calamine lotion
  • Pouring cool water over the infected areas
  • Putting an oatmeal paste on the infections
  • Making a baking soda and water solution to soothe the itching

If the itching and infection are persistent (and more than annoying), it is recommended to see a health care provider. Some people have such strong allergic reactions that prescription medication is necessary. Columbia students can see a health care provider at Medical Services. Appointments are available online through Open Communicator, or by calling x4-2284. In the meantime, keep him from scratching!

Alice