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Is Poison Ivy Contagious?

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Shari Nethersole, M.D.

Q: I was wondering if poison ivy/oak is contagious. I work at a day care center and my director says if the child brings in the leaf or bark from home then it can be cantagious. A parent says that if the child scratches the infected area, opens up a blister, and then touches another child, it will spread on that child. He began with it on his face and now it is all over. Please let me know so that I can inform my boss with your answer.

A: Your day care center director is correct. The poison ivy rash is not contagious. When a person touches the poison ivy leaf, a substance on the surface of the leaf (a resin) rubs off. Over the next 48 to 72 hours the skin reacts to the resin by becoming red and developing bumps and blisters at and around the site where the resin was. It can be very itchy and uncomfortable, especially for children, but will eventually go away, though it may take weeks. Sometimes prescription creams or medications are given to help it resolve faster.

The fluid inside the blisters is not contagious, and will not cause poison ivy if another child touches it. The "spreading" of poison ivy on one person that you are describing, is due to different factors. When the resin touches the skin or clothing it sticks there until it is washed off. Often, people do not know that they have touched poison ivy, and may end up spreading the resin to other parts of their body with their hands or their clothing over the next day, until they've washed their hands or taken a bath. Since the rash doesn't occur until two or three days later, it can appear as though successive crops of blisters are developing over a one or two day period, all from that same exposure to the resin of the poison ivy plant.

There are some things you can do to prevent poison ivy: First, know what the plant looks like, and try to avoid it; next, wear clothing that will protect the skin if you know you will be in area where poison ivy is present; and last, wash up well as soon as possible after coming in from being out in the woods, including washing of the clothing that you wore. The less time the resin sits on the skin, the milder the reaction is likely to be.

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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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