Skip to Content

Can Poison Ivy Be Airborne? | Protecting Against Infection

My oldest daughter is severely allergic to poison ivy, and there is a lot of it near where I live. I did some research to find out if we needed to worry about her being in the vicinity of it, and these are my findings.

Poison ivy cannot be airborne; the infection is caused only after physical contact with leaves, stems, berries, or roots of the plant. A resin called Urushiol is found in the roots, stems, and leaves of poison ivy. Contact with this sticky substance is what causes allergic reactions in people.

As a parent of three kids, I know how important it is to be aware of various ways you can catch the infection, as not recognizing contamination might result in serious health hazards. Here is some more information that I found during my research.

Poison Ivy Tree Airborne or Not

What Is Urushiol?

Urushiol is an oily, sticky resin found in the roots, stems, and leaves of poison ivy. Researchers say that the same resin is also found in poison sumac and poison oak.

Being extremely sticky in nature, urushiol tends to attach easily to everything that makes contact with it. These may include your skin, tools, and equipment you use, your clothing, and even your beloved pet’s fur.

How Long Does Urushiol Remain Potent?

Urushiol can remain potent for a long time. There are instances where the resin has caused infection after remaining attached to an object for years.

Are There Any Exceptions and Ways That Poison Ivy Can Be in the Air?

While poison ivy cannot be airborne under normal circumstances, there are a couple of rare instances where Urushiol can be transferred in the air:

  1. Inhaling smoke emitted by burnt plants causes someone to develop a poison ivy allergy even by inhaling the smoke emitted by burnt plants. In fact, the worse form of infection occurs when the harmful resin enters your system in this manner. The smoke would irritate and harm your nasal passages and lungs and can even cause death.
  2. Being around a lawnmower or weed wacker that throws the leaves or stems of poison ivy in the air.

Like many other infections, poison ivy allergy can never spread from one individual to another.

For instance, if an infected person with rashes on his arms or hands touches or shakes hands with another person, the latter would not develop the infection. That’s because poison ivy allergy occurs due to direct exposure to the actual culprit, i.e., urushiol.

In this case, the healthy person is not coming in contact with urushiol. What he is touching or getting exposed to are rashes caused by the resin.

What Ways Can You Actually Get Infected by Poison Ivy Resin?

Here are some ways you may get infected by poison ivy:

  1. Direct contact with poison ivy: Touching the berries, roots, stems, or leaves of poison ivy leaves you at high risk of having the allergy.
  2. Through your pets or other animals: If an animal or your pet (it might be a cat, a dog, or anything else) makes contact with the plant, the oily resin produced by it might stick to its fur. There is a reasonably high risk of getting exposed to urushiol when cuddling your pet.
  3. From your clothing: Like an animal coat, clothing fibers might also transfer urushiol.
  4. From outdoor and gardening tools: The resin would linger on gardening/outdoor tools like lawnmowers and weed whackers for several years if you fail to clean them meticulously using water and soap after use. You can also rub some alcohol onto them for better results.
  5. From recreational equipment: Other than tools, urushiol can also stick to a range of other objects used in lawns and gardens. These include bicycles, hiking poles, golf clubs, etc.

Identifying and Protecting Yourself from Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy is basically a shrub or vine marked by 3 glossy leaves. It is found in various parts of Asia and the US.

When an individual allergic to the plant gets exposed to the plant or any of its parts, he/she develops red and itchy skin rashes. The infection tends to worsen upon scratching the rashes. This happens mainly due to the bacteria present under our fingernails.

Seeking medical advice is mandatory if blisters get filled with pus. You should also get yourself checked by a doctor if the rashes don’t subside within two weeks.

Here are a few ways to protect yourself:

1. Stay away from the plant

To avoid the plant, you will have to learn to identify it (you will also need to identify other plants like poison sumac and poison oak).
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t really know what poison ivy looks like or where it usually grows.

The most prominent feature of poison ivy is its slim stem which features a total of three leaves. The largest of them all is positioned at the end of the stem, while the smaller ones are present on either side.

Poison ivy leaves might be smooth or notched at the edges and come with pointed tips. The color of the leaves tends to change every season. During the summer months, they remain green in color. The fall sees them turn yellow or orange. During the spring months, on the other hand, the leaves turn reddish.

2. Wear protective gear and clothing

When taking part in activities like gardening, hiking, camping, etc., you must always wear gears and clothing that would keep your skin covered. Examples of such articles include vinyl gloves, long-sleeved tees, and tops, pants, boots, socks, etc.

As far as gloves go, here is a pair found on Amazon that I highly recommend. (Click the link to see the listing)

3. Use barrier creams

You must have used barrier creams to protect your skin from mosquitoes and other insects. You can do the same even to keep yourself protected from this poisonous shrub. There are quite a few over-the-counter topical products that have been formulated to play the role of a barrier between urushiol and our skin.

I actually recommend a barrier creme (click to see Amazon listing) that is designed for mechanics and other workers. It seems to be much less expensive than cremes specifically designed to guard against poison ivy.

4. Get rid of the plants

It’s definitely not possible to remove poison ivy from places you visit. However, you can surely kill or remove the ones you have in your garden or yard.

These plants can be removed by applying a strong herbicide. I would avoid the cheap stuff, like Roundup. You really need something specifically designed for poison ivy that is grass friendly. I recommend something like Chemjoe, a highly-rated product. It’s well worth the extra expense.

You can also hire an expert to pull them out along with their roots. If you have a pair of gloves, you can even complete the job of pulling out the shrub all by yourself. Make sure you wash the gloves as well as your hands thoroughly once the job is done.

Never commit the mistake of burning poison ivy. The result could be horrifying. The smoke produced would spread urushiol and increase your chances of having an infection.

If You Think You or Someone Else Has Been Exposed

There are a couple of things that should be done if you think there is even the slightest chance of exposure:

1. Wash your skin and your pets fur

Don’t forget to wash your pets’ fur and your skin within half an hour of exposure. Always use water and soap to get rid of the poisonous resin completely. Don’t forget to scrub the region underneath your fingernails with care.

Always wear a pair of long gloves (preferably made of rubber) when giving your pet a bath after a suspected contamination.

If you fail to wash the exposed regions within 30 minutes, make sure you get the job done the moment you get an opportunity. It has been found that the severity of rashes tends to be significantly low even if the exposed regions are washed within an hour.

2. Clean all contaminated objects

Your job doesn’t end with cleaning your exposed body parts after coming in contact with urushiol. You should also wash your clothing using a high-quality detergent. It would be wise to use your washing machine for this cleaning job. Be careful when handling the contaminated clothes; if you act carelessly, you might end up spreading urushiol to appliances, rugs, furniture, and even yourself.

Don’t forget to wash other contaminated objects like garden tools, shoes (including the shoelaces), jewelry, etc., as promptly as possible.

What If Someone Gets Infected?

If you fail to prevent infection, make sure you manage it in the right way. Usually, self-care methods are enough when it comes to the treatment of these rashes.

Poison ivy rashes usually go away on their own within 2 to 3 weeks. Applying calamine lotion might offer some relief by reducing inflammation and irritation. Taking wet compresses for 25 to 30 minutes is another way of cooling the infected body parts down. Having over-the-counter antihistamines like diphenhydramine may also help you in managing the problem.

Do visit a doctor if the rashes turn into blisters. Your doctor might prescribe prednisone or another oral corticosteroid. In the case of bacterial infection in the affected region, the doctor might ask you to take a few doses of oral antibiotics.

About Poison Ivy Infection

You have to be allergic to the plant to get poison ivy rashes. Statistics obtained so far suggest that around 85% of people are allergic to this plant. To be more precise, these people are not exactly allergic to the plant but to urushiol, the active ingredient of the vine.

Other than infecting the affected skin, poison ivy might damage the lining of your lungs and cause serious respiratory disorders, which might even be fatal.

What Allergens Can Be Airborne?

Most airborne allergens are not as insidious as something like poison ivy or poison oak. Usually, the common airborne allergens only affect people who have a specific sensitivity to that allergen.

Here are a few examples of common airborne allergens:

  • Smoke
  • Dust Mites
  • Pollen
  • Dander
  • Mold

Final Thoughts

Poison ivy infection is extremely common, but it has nothing to do with it becoming airborne.

Contamination just happens to people who tend to spend a lot of time in the lawn or garden alone or with pets. People who engage in activities like hunting, camping, fishing at the shoreline, firefighting, construction works, installation of telephone or cable lines, gardening, landscaping, forestry, and farming are particularly susceptible.

The good news is you don’t have to worry about poison ivy floating along on the breeze and getting on your skin. Avoid touching the plant, and you avoid getting a rash.

Related Questions

Can you have ivy rash all over your body? Rashes caused by exposure to poison ivy don’t spread from one part of the body to the other. These rashes appear only on the body parts that come in contact with the harmful resin called urushiol.

Is poison ivy contagious? The only time when the rashes can turn contagious is when you forget to wash the resin off the infected part, and it infects another part of your body. I have seen people get confused upon observing the spreading of these rashes on different body parts. They are actually rashes developing at different times following exposure.

Can you become immune to poison ivy? Immunity to poison ivy is a myth. However, some people are naturally less sensitive to getting a rash. Even so, anyone exposed to poison ivy long enough will become infected.

For more, check out Why Are My Allergies so Bad When I Wake Up?