Survival Myth: You Can Get Poison Ivy from Scratching

Poison Ivy

Have you had poison ivy? Most of us have at some point. If so this picture probably makes you itch somewhere.

Exposure to Poison Ivy

Poison ivy and other Rhus plants, like poison oak and poison sumac, contain an oily allergen called urushiol, which causes a reaction in up to 80% of the people who come into contact with it. It usually causes an itchy skin rash that can last weeks.

Urushiol is found on the vine, stems, and leaves of the plant. Simply brushing against the plant, even during the winter months when it appears dormant, allows the oily allergen to come into contact with your skin.

Within 10 to 15 minutes after contact, your skin begins absorbing the urushiol. 24 to 48 hours after that, a skin rash will begin appearing.

Urushiol can also transfer to clothing, boots, gloves, hats, etc. It’s oily residue can remain on these items for years. Touching a contaminated item even months later allows the urushiol to transfer to your skin.

The Key to Preventing an Allergic Reaction

For most people, it takes 10 to 15 minutes for the oily allergen to absorb into the skin. If you can remove the irritant before it can be absorbed, your chances of experiencing a reaction or greatly reduced.

If you contact poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac:

  • Wash you all areas that you feel may have contacted the plant as soon a possible. Soap and cool water are sufficient in removing the oil from your skin.
  • If you are in a survival situation and soap is not available, use plenty of water. I would also suggest reaching to the bottom of the water source and getting a little sandy or muddy silt and rub your skin well with it. This will help remove the oil from you skin.
  • If no water is available, rub dirt or sand on the exposed areas. You want to remove as much of the oil as possible.
  • Treat clothing that has come into contact with the plant. Wash your boots, shirt, gloves, etc. If left untreated, these items can contaminate you with the oil weeks or months later.

Treating a Poison Ivy Rash

A poison ivy rash produces little blisters where the urushiol was absorbed by the skin. If you experience an outbreak:

  • Don’t scratch the itch. This will cause the blisters to burst and they could be infected.
  • Apply topical ointments or creams to help reduce the itching. Calamine lotion and hydrocortisone cream can help.
  • Some people find that applying baking soda and water helps to reduce the symptoms.
  • Oral antihistamines can also help relieve the itching sensation.
You probably already have many of these items in your prepping supplies. If not consider adding them to your coffers.

 Scratching Does Not Spread the Blisters

A very common misunderstanding of poison ivy is that scratching and bursting the blisters of a poison ivy rash can spread the infection area.

This is not the case.

It’s the exposure to urushiol to the skin that causes an outbreak. The blisters of a rash do contain a fluid, but it’s not urushiol. It’s your body’s reaction.

While scratching and burst the blisters should be avoided to prevent possible bacterial infections, the fluid contained in the blisters does not contain urushiol and hence cannot spread the rash.

Once again, the key to preventing the spread of a poison ivy rash is to clean everything that may have come into contact with the urushiol oil.

Poison ivy rashes are an annoyance in the good times. In a post-TEOTWAWKI world, that’s one annoyance that you definitely don’t want.

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17 Comments on “Survival Myth: You Can Get Poison Ivy from Scratching”

  1. Dennis Nall Says:

    Another treatment used by my father and later by me is to apply wet tobacco onto the affected area and allow to dry. It pulls out the venom and relieves the pain. I keep a small container of pouches in every medical kit “just in case”. They will also work for spider bites as well.


    • Joe Says:

      I’ve heard about this treatment for years but have always wondered if it was more of an old wives tale.

      So, from your experience it works?


      • Dennis Nall Says:

        yes! and also pulls out the stinger much of the time. Used on many types of insect bites or stings.


  2. Nathan Buelow Says:

    What about contact with an animal? I beleive I have contracted a Poison Ivy reaction after my dog goes running through the woods and brushes up against me. Do you know if this is possible? If so, any thoughts on how to prevent this from occuring in the future?


    • Joe Says:

      If an animal comes into contact with poison ivy while romping through the woods, the urushiol allergen can transfer to you just as it would with other contaminated items. (Animals typically don’t have a reaction to poison ivy.)

      The only way to to prevent it would be to keep him out of the woods. If that’s not possible or desirable, you’ll need to bath him to get the poison ivy oils off of him as soon as possible. Wear latex gloves, use soap and water, and wash him well.

      Be careful. Anything that he touches en route to a bath could result in a transfer of the oil. For example a ride home in the backseat of your car would allow the oil to get on the car seats.



  3. Stacey Arnold Says:

    Great post! For those that are especially sensitive to poison ivy, Tecnu makes a great product to remove the urushiol. Also, jewel weed is often located nearby when poison ivy is present. It can help to remove the oil too. I learned that on my first job as a horticulturist…trust me…it works!


    • Joe Says:

      Thanks for the comment, Stacey. Jewelweed is another remedy that I’ve heard of but have never tried myself.

      Do you have any info for how it’s applied?




      • Stacey Arnold Says:

        You just crush the leaves and apply it where you made contact with the poison ivy. The plant makes a lot of juice so you should have plenty of it to wash the affected area. Mother Nature always has a remedy if we pay attention 🙂


        • Joe Says:

          Thanks, Stacey. Does it neutralize the urushiol and thus need to be applied within the first 20 minutes after contact with poison ivy? Or does it help with the reaction after blisters form?

          Thanks for the info.



  4. Urbivalist Dan Says:

    What a coincidence…

    As I sit here typing, I have poison (something) all over both arms and legs. I contracted yesterday/this morning on a camping trip, so it’s been easily over 24 hours and probably not treatable at this point, but it is good to know that it can’t be spread any longer.

    I may grab some Tecnu for next time though–thanks for the head’s up guys!


  5. Doug Collins Says:

    I have had poison ivy for 6 weeks now, I went to the doctor around week 3. The Doctor prescribed prednisone and it seemed to work, when I was finished with the prednisone the poison ivy came back. What should I do now? Any suggestion would be great


    • Joe Says:

      Oooh, sorry to hear about your trials, Doug.

      I would encourage you to thoroughly wash everything that you may have contacted shortly after touching the poison ivy to make sure that you are not re-infecting yourself with the urushiol oil. It can last years on a surface.

      As for other medications, Benadryl may help reduce your reactions. Same for calamine lotion. You may also want to call your doctor.

      I hope you get better soon.



  6. Hilario Klocke Says:

    Some people are just born with oily skin. This is due to genetics. The excess oil on the surface often causes irritation and cause the skin to become inflamed. That’s why there are rashes, acne or eczema.Fortunately, this is a treatable condition. But be careful not to apply excessive cosmetics in the hope of “covering up” the problem. The chemicals from the cosmetic products may worsen the problem. Instead, seek the advice of a professional beauty consultant. They will be able to treat your skin condition properly.;

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  7. Chad Gdovin Says:

    For the most part, antihistamines are safe. Having said that, antihistamines can have side effects which, if the antihistamine is not properly administered, can be serious. The truth is, all medications have side effects. Some are mild, as in the case of an aspirin, unless you have stomach ulcers or aspirin sensitivity and others are more serious such as the side effects from chemotherapy, but for the most part, antihistamine side effects are fairly mild. The newest antihistamines are probably about the safest medications that there are. But there are differences between the various antihistamines and their side effects.-

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  8. Xiao Stockwin Says:

    The curative properties of Olive Oil, both internal and external are nothing short of miraculous and I would like to share with you a recent experience that serves as a reminder to me how some of the most common elements surrounding us often remain overlooked.-

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