Does scratching poison ivy make it spread?

May 27th, 2011 by Beth-Ann Ryan

No–the FDA, Mayo Clinic, and several other reputable health organizations all state scratching poison ivy, oak, or sumac will not spread the rash, which is produced by exposure to the plant oil urushiol.  

The Mayo Clinic writes “A poison ivy rash itself isn’t contagious. Blister fluid doesn’t contain urushiol and won’t spread the rash. In addition, you can’t get poison ivy from another person unless you’ve had contact with urushiol that’s still on that person or on his or her clothing.”

According to the FDA “Poison ivy and other poison plant rashes can’t be spread from person to person. But it is possible to pick up the rash from plant oil that may have stuck to clothing, pets, garden tools, and other items that have come in contact with these plants. The plant oil lingers (sometimes for years) on virtually any surface until it’s washed off with water or rubbing alcohol.”

“The rash will only occur where the plant oil has touched the skin, so a person with poison ivy can’t spread it on the body by scratching. It may seem like the rash is spreading if it appears over time instead of all at once. But this is either because the plant oil is absorbed at different rates in different parts of the body or because of repeated exposure to contaminated objects or plant oil trapped under the fingernails.”

Thanks for using Ask a Librarian Delaware! Have a question?  Ask us!

Bookmark and Share

21 Responses to “Does scratching poison ivy make it spread?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    No way! I thought for sure you could spread poison ivy by scratching. Thanks for clearing that up.

  2. Jody says:

    If that were true, then why did I get poison oak all over my face and lips from kissing my partner who had cut some huge vines down? He had already washed several times with poison oak removal soap, alcohol, witch hazel. So if he had clearly washed multiple times how in the world did I get it on my face?

  3. JoeyG says:

    @ Jody: Unfortunately washing is no guarantee that the urushiol was removed completely. It can take almost nothing to cause a poison ivy reaction in people who are very sensitive to it. I hope it has cleared up for you by now and you are able to avoid it in the future.

  4. Mikey says:

    Yeah it doesn’t spread. Right now I have it so bad I cant really even open my eyes. Had to call out for work which sucks but in time it will go away just like all the other times I have had it. Just keep washing my face and putting new whatever on it. Calamine lotion anything to help dry it all up.

  5. Eric says:

    I’m pretty sure it actually can spread if you are very allergic (like me). I got poison something (ivy, oak, sumac) from cutting down some tall grass 3 weeks ago. I still get new spots that are appearing 3 weeks after the fact. I will scratch the spots in my sleep and the next day new spots appear. The new spots are pretty small and not nearly as puffy as the main spots that appeared a couple days after being exposed. I can’t believe that they would appear from something I touched 3 weeks ago. I feel as if it’s spreading through my bloodstream.

  6. Lisa says:

    @Eric No, scratching poison ivy doesn’t make it spread. Only the oil can spread the rash. The blog even quoted the FDA “The plant oil lingers (sometimes for years) on virtually any surface until it’s washed off with water or rubbing alcohol.”

    I’m very sensitive and can attest that the oil does linger. And just washing isn’t enough. You need to wash in hot water with a soap or detergent that removes oils. And you need to scrub anything you may have touched like doorknobs, walls, handles, faucets, etc. Once I started doing that when I get posion ivy it never spreads. And be careful of pets too. It stays on their fur until it’s washed out.

  7. Wendy says:

    What helps it I can’t get it to go away

  8. hmmm says:

    spread by oil….you scratch oil gets under your fingernails. You scratch someplace else and what happens??? It spreads….

  9. Ale says:

    So the oil is absorbed into the skin, I knew that. But is there any way for the oil to unbind with the skin to become hostile again?

  10. Justin says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here. When poison oak/sumac is in your system and your body cannot fight it off, rashes can appear in places that never came in came in contact with urishoil so @Eric it can totes spread through your bloodstream.

  11. Amy says:

    I just went to the Dr. and got a steroid and itch med. I also had to visit the ER before for a shot of steroid. over-the-counter meds only prolong it. And no it doesn’t spread by itching.

  12. Chris F says:

    Thank you so much for this incredible information! I realize now that when it has spread before I re contacted with a surface that had the oil. So I guess the only thing scratching does is create scars and/or make it itch more…? Anyway I just wanted to thank you for this information. It’s a really wonderful, informative article.

  13. Deb. R. says:

    Both of our twins are allergic to it and they work outside at a golf course and get into it every spring. they go to the doctor and get a steroid and that takes care of it faster than letting it run its course.

  14. Jamie says:

    I am VERY allergic to poison ivy and I know for a fact that it spreads from scratching or touching it. Although all the websites say otherwise…. I got a very specific “L” shape poison ivy blister(s) on the the back of my calf, I showered and went to bed. In the morning a mirrored blister was on the back of my thigh, it lined up perfectly with the original rash.

  15. GPeach177 says:

    i think that the main point here is that the ‘blister fluid’ itself doesn’t contain urushiol and won’t spread the rash when they pop. BUT, if there is any remaining urushiol on the skin, you can spread it.

  16. Mlm100604 says:

    It’s funny how some people still refuse to believe that scratching doesn’t spread it, even when given the scientific proof. Rofl

  17. Big Shady says:

    Yep, people will refuse to believe anything. If a rash appears the next day after youve already got one, its because all the oil wasnt washed from your skin or you came into contact with the clothes you wore or the tools you were using or ANYTHING you touched that day while the oil was on your hands. I have some right not on my forehead, chest and wrist.

  18. Amanda says:

    I have poison ivy all over. It is on my scalp, my face, my neck, my chest, my arms, my fingers, my hands, my legs, and my feet.

    It is awful. My sister had it first and then I got it. I have never had it before this. I am going to wash everything and wipe down everything tomorrow. I know I keep scratching it and I keep getting new spots.

    I need to bath my dogs and cat now too.

    Thanks for the article.

  19. Kathi says:

    It takes several days for you to break out completely from any oil that came in contact with the skin. The first day you may have a few itchy spots, as the rash first starts out. Over the next several days more itchy places will come up. Perhaps this is why people THINK it spreads due to itching, but its actually just from the original contact with the plant.

  20. Bob says:

    What if you touched a pet with it

  21. Al says:

    I just wanted to let people kno there is a soap that will break down the oil. Fels naptha which is a laundry soap will remove the oils on skin and clothes. Just completeley wash all over and scrub it into clothes before washing them.