Understanding poison ivy’s itch

June 22, 2012

I was delighted to see that The Post included poison ivy contagion among the summer myths that need debunking [“Debunking the myths of summer,” Health and Science, June 19]. While practicing pediatrics, I sometimes encountered people who were so firmly convinced that poison ivy is contagious that they just wouldn’t accept alternative explanations.

The piece accurately described the role of the oil from the poison ivy plant. Unfortunately, it referred to one suffering from poison ivy as the “infected person.” People get “infected” by microorganisms — little living things that multiply in or on them, such as bacteria, fungi or viruses. Infections are contagious when microorganisms transferred from one person can grow and reproduce in somebody else.

The poison ivy oil is not a microorganism. It’s a chemical. It can’t grow and reproduce, so it can’t cause an “infection.” That’s why poison ivy is not contagious. The person with poison ivy is an “affected person,” not an “infected person.”

Imprecise use of words like “contagious” and “infected” perpetuates these misconceptions.

Janet Gingold,

Upper Marlboro

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