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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Indirect Poison Ivy

By July 12, 2008

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Poison Ivy (Ken Samuelsen, Getty Images)
Raise your hand if you knew you could get poison ivy indirectly, from clothes, furniture, or pets. The reaction is not usually as bad as if you touched the actual plant, but you can get a nasty rash. Yeah, there is a recent personal experience behind that. We won't get into that, but I can say just typing this blog post makes me itch more.

The 'poison' in poison ivy, poison oak, and sumac is an oil called urushiol. Urushiol acts as an allergen. Like other allergens, such as pollen or pet hair, not everyone reacts to it, the reaction depends on the dose, and you can become susceptible at any time, even if you never had a reaction before. The most common symptom of exposure to poison ivy is contact dermatitis, which usually manifests as a red, itchy rash with raised areas (hives) or fluid-filled blisters.

You don't immediately break out into a rash as soon as you touch poison ivy. It takes time to react to the allergen. If you have been exposed before, even if you didn't react, you can start to itch with a few hours to a day. If it was your first exposure to any of the urushiol-containing plants, you might not show symptoms for a week or two. Anywhere from 5 hours to 15 days is common. Since you usually won't know you have poison ivy right away, there is an excellent chance you will spread it around. Your clothes can transfer the oil (watch where you throw your laundry or where you sit). Tools and pets are good at spreading the oil, too. You can't spread it from your skin by the time you see a rash... the oil has already been absorbed. Since the reaction depends on how much of the oil was present, indirect exposure to poison ivy tends not to be as severe as what you would get from the plant. You can usually manage the itching with an antihistamine (like Benadryl) and cope with any swelling with corticosteroids. The reaction runs its course in 10 days to 3 weeks, though a really severe rash may take up to 6 weeks to heal.


July 12, 2008 at 4:22 pm
(1) Phylameana says:

First time I was exposed to poison ivy was through water or air over 20 years ago. I was never near a poison ivy plant. But after a day of swimming in a lake I got poison ivy. I had a cut on my ankle and the poison I was exposed to spread through my blood stream and I rashed out everywhere… even my tongue an inside my mouth. The ER doc said I likely got it from oil off another person who had been swimming in the lake, but it could also have been transferred through the air. Not likely it would have happened if only my skin had been exposed this way, but the cut made me vulnerable. Ewww… itch memory of it gets me every time. I had to get a shot!

July 28, 2008 at 11:41 am
(2) yolanda spearman says:

You don’t immediately break out into a rash as soon as you touch poison ivy. It takes time to react to the allergen. If you have been exposed before, even if you didn’t react, you can start to itch with a few hours to a day.

August 3, 2008 at 7:23 am
(3) Ray says:

I have heard you can also get it from burning it, for example, burning yard debris from gardening and landscaping. I have not experienced being exposed this way personally, but they say it’s particularly nasty. Here in Oregon we have poison oak rather than poison ivy, but it is essentially the same thing. I made the mistake of wearing shorts while clearing it out of our yard and paid for it with two weeks of misery. Poison oak has small white berries and I have also heard you can build up resistance by eating a few each day. I think I will pass on that one!

July 15, 2012 at 12:32 am
(4) cody says:

This s**t sucks. Within 3 hrs of itching I was covered. Head to toe!

June 1, 2013 at 1:16 am
(5) tina says:

Every doc says it doesn’t spread from the rash. Then why is it appearing ALL over my body when I was wearing long pants & long sleeves when exposed. Its been a week & more areas break out each day. I have taken every precaution (shower, not retouching exposed clothing or garden tools or shoes, etc). I think the water that leaks out of the blisters & causes reinfection. My young son fell asleep on my arm a few years ago where I had it & when we awoke his face had broken out where it was resting on my arm! I also can walk through fields of poison ivy, but break out from poison oak.
I am miserable. Everywhere! Its still spreading. And my rash/blisters aren’t draining anymore. Now I’m wondering if it gets in the blood? I’m on prednisone (pills/Z pack) from doc. Using calamine lotion, cortisone cream, & Fels Naptha bar soap. Tonite pharmacist said take Benadryl 2x day (sleep it off) & keep washing with Dawn (not generic or other) dish soap. I think the dawn would be similar to Fels Naptha (laundry bar soap, you can see all the fluid draw out of blisters & dries it all out so no more itch). Usually works perfect. But this time…its just spreading & I don’t know why.

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