Can a poison ivy rash spread even after the urushiol oil has been washed off?
July 1, 2011 3:57 PM   Subscribe

Can a poison ivy rash spread even after the urushiol oil has been washed off?

I've had a number of run-ins with poison ivy in the past few months and typically (using some Zanfel or Tecnu) I'm able to keep the rash contained and get rid of it within a couple of days.

But this past weekend I went camping and must have trudged through and field of poison ivy as my ankles were covered in the rash within 24 hours, plus I had it on both wrist.

I did my usual scrub with on the spots I saw with Tecnu (and then Tecnu Extreme) but it seems to be having almost no effect.

And worse, it's spreading. I've got little rash "dots" randomly on just about every place you can think of (note: poison ivy on your eyelid is not pleasant).

I'm hardly covered in the rash, but I just keep finding little spots of it all over me.

So, is there anything I can do except to keep putting Tecnu or Zanfel on the spots? I was under the impression that after I got all the urushiol oil off, that it wouldn't spread, but is that not the case?
posted by JPigford to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Lots of experience here. Yes, it can be spread, depending on what you've been touching with contaminated hands. You may have a case of cross contamination with something you were using while camping. Clothing items, tools, faucet handles, leashes, camping supplies, the cell phone, maybe even a steering wheel. I would clean any items you typically use. My hunch is that residual urushiol isn't much of a problem unless the contamination is particularly bad, so I wouldn't worry about this too much as long as you clean the most obvious items.

There is the possibility of systemic urushiol infection, which you might be seeing, but this could also very well be cross contamination. I can't recall what the systemic symptoms are exactly, but it might not hurt to see a doctor or dermatologist since they can check things out and also give you some cortisone products for relief.

FWIW, I learned to skip Tecnu and other solutions and go right in for Zanfel after thorough cleaning. If I pay attention to cross contamination and get the rash within the first day or so, Zanfel cures it about 80% of the time. It's probably not worth putting Zanfel on a spot repeatedly since that stuff's expensive and it's not going to do much more after the first couple of scrubs... I would fall back on Tecnu for that.
posted by crapmatic at 4:07 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Once the urushiol has been washed off, the rash cannot spread, but it can take longer (even a couple days) to manifest depending on skin thickness and sensitivity.

But if you're getting it everywhere, I'm sorry to say that it sounds like you have a systemic reaction. You may need to see a doc to get some oral corticosteroid.

The only other possibility is that you keep coming in contact with something that has urushiol oil on it.
posted by Specklet at 4:08 PM on July 1, 2011

I'm assuming you scrubbed down all the stuff you were wearing at the time that you trudged through the poison ivy, right? That stuff can stay on clothes and shoes and stuff, and if you keep touching it, you'll keep getting new patches of reaction. Yuck! I hope you feel better soon.
posted by eldiem at 4:19 PM on July 1, 2011

Response by poster: So if I touch some of the rash (after it's been scrubbed with Zanfel or Tecnu), then it should NOT spread...correct?

And what if some of the bubbled up skin on the rash breaks...will the liquid/puss spread the rash?
posted by JPigford at 4:32 PM on July 1, 2011

Right. The rash won't spread just from touching it. Lots of people think the weepy part of the rash is the oil and spreads the rash, but it does not. Only direct contact with the oil will spread it. Some things:

1. Agreed. You could be spreading it from clothes, shoes, etc.
2. It could be systemic, but if it hasn't been before, that's less likely.
3. Do you have a dog you took with you? If so, wash it.
4. My best guess? Poison oak, which gets in the bloodstream and spreads randomly for a while.

Sorry for your rash. I know how uncomfortable that is.
posted by mrfuga0 at 4:35 PM on July 1, 2011

Lots of misinformation here. I had a nasty bout with poison oak that I'm just getting over, so I did some digging on the truth.

There's an oil in poison ivy/oak/sumac (urushiol, as mentioned above) that causes a skin rash. Once the oil's gone from your skin, the rash won't spread. However, it can take some parts of the rash to show up longer than other parts, depending on the quantity of oil the parts were exposed to.. so you get some, then some more a few days later, but it isn't spreading from your skin. However, double wash all your clothes and anything you might have touched with the affected parts that day. I spread the rash through my camping blankets, for example.

I did, happily, find an effective remedy to stop the itching -- heat. Take a hairdryer (or hot water) and blow it at the itchy area as long as you can stand it. It will begin to itch furiously (the person I learned this from called it an "itch-gasm" and they weren't far off). As soon as the itching turns to pain, you can stop. That'll stop the itching for several hours. That was the only thing that let me sleep well during the first week.
posted by zug at 4:51 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

zug, where's the misinformation? Unless I'm mistaken, no one is claiming anything different from what you're saying.

Hot water works well as an itch soother too: run very hot water over the affected area until it feels icy. Scrambles the nerve signals for hours.
posted by Specklet at 5:26 PM on July 1, 2011

Think of it this way: in order for you to get the rash, you have to be exposed to the oil. Only the oil causes the rash. In order to get the rash after you have washed off the oil from the plant, your skin would have to produce the oil. Your skin does not produce urushiol. Therefore, you cannot get more poison ivy once you have washed off the oil.
posted by OmieWise at 6:30 PM on July 1, 2011

Hot water works well as an itch soother too I don't know about this. I got a nasty case of poison ivy on my ankles a number of years ago. We had just moved into a new home with one of those detachable shower massage heads and I would spray one ankle with the shower head only to have my other ankle scream for the relief and vice-versa. Seemed like I spent a ridiculous amount of time spraying one ankle until the other couldn't stand being left out, rinse, repeat.
posted by Rafaelloello at 7:40 PM on July 1, 2011

where's the misinformation?

Well, the idea that urushiol can be washed off for starters. Urushiol is a hapten. That means it binds to proteins in the skin and cannot be washed off. Though it isn't going to be easily spread once the source is washed away, and certainly not after the rash has kicked in.

Furthermore, it doesn't sound like a systemic infection. It sounds like you rubbed the urushiol all over yourself before you knew it was on you. It is interesting that it clears faster in some locations than others. It could just be the level of exposure, as zug points out, but there are a lot of other variables. Your skin varies in thickness, hairiness, no. of sebaceous glands etc. depending on which part you're looking at, and such differences could influence the duration of the rash. Out of curiosity, where was it normally affecting you (where it clears in a couple of days)?
posted by kisch mokusch at 1:09 AM on July 2, 2011

I agree with others who've said you probably accidentally spread the oil around without realizing it, or you're re-contaminating yourself through contact with something that came in contact with the poison ivy. A few years ago my boyfriend removed a bunch of vines from the back of the house that turned out to be poison ivy, and even though I didn't come into any contact with the vines or the brush, I was finding little spots of poison ivy rash on myself for WEEKS afterward, because the knucklehead spread the oil throughout the house.

Oh, sometimes clothing washed with clothes that have come into contact with poison ivy can spread the oil, too, if it's not washed thoroughly. Wheee!
posted by crowyhead at 11:42 AM on July 2, 2011

Hot water, hot as you can stand it, directly on the place(s) that itch worst -- the relief is so intense. Itch-gasm, I've not heard that term but I have absolutely heard others say that it's damn near intense as orgasm and that is my experience also -- jesus. The relief lasts 4 hours, maybe 5; when I get nailed by poison ivy I spend a LOT of time in hot shower, so I can sleep, so I can get through the days without going nuts behind the itch.

Also, benedryl, or whatever antihistamine floats your boat, that takes the itch out some.

I've had it systemically, had to go to the emergency room one night because my throat was closing down, was getting to where I couldn't breathe -- real fun, huh? Steroids, a shot of some steroid or other.

The stuff is everywhere here in Austin, everywhere. A nightmare for someone as sensitive to it as I am; I can absolutely deal with the heat, the humidity I don't like but I can deal, but the PI is the worst. A horror show.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:22 PM on July 2, 2011

I have no science to go on here (despite being a scientist), but I've had Epic poison ivy and would swear it was systemic. Tecnu and similar are the only things I've found that really seemed to help stop the spread - and combined with Hot water the scrubs lead to itch-gasms that don't seem to spread the rash.

Before the expensive scrubs, I had rashes reappearing for something like 5 weeks when I swear I'd washed Everything including my sleeping bag and glasses (behind my ears? Really poison ivy?) and would take super hot showers. So my advice is to get those scrubs and use them repeatedly and liberally. Best $30 I spent in a Long Time. I would agree that it doesn't spread through the blisters, but PI sure did spread like oil on a hot day. For excruciating weeks.

PS - Fun fact, the itch-gasm is a histamine thing, and has to do with flooding neuroreceptors, kind of like orgasms. I remember having fun googling that to distract myself from the horrible itching. Good luck and an end to it soon!
posted by ldthomps at 6:20 PM on July 3, 2011

a little late to this topic. i had systemic poison ivy last summer. i haven't been in poison ivy so far this summer, but i'm getting spots on my arm for some reason. how long does systemic poison ivy stay in the body?
posted by memnock at 8:07 PM on July 15, 2011

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