Is poison oak contagious? If you or a friend has poison oak, you may worry that scratching or touching the rash will cause it to spread. The bottom line is this: poison oak is not contagious, but you can get poison oak in ways other than touching those three leaved plants. In order to understand how poison oak is spread, you need to understand what causes the rash and how that rash is passed along.
A poison oak rash, like a poison ivy rash, is actually a reaction to an oil present in and on the poison oak plant. This oil is called urushiol. Urushiol is found in all parts of the poison oak plant, including the leaves, stems, roots and berries. This oil is easily accessed; it is present on the surface of the entire plant. All you have to do is touch a part of a poison oak shrub and you will come in contact with urushiol.
How you respond to urushiol will depend on the sensitivity of your skin. Most people-about 80 percent-respond by developing itchy pustules everywhere they come in contact with urushiol. About 20 percent of people are unaffected by poison oak and do not develop a rash at all. Most animals are unaffected by urushiol.
You can come in contact with urushiol in other ways besides touching a poison oak plant or shrub. If your cat rubs its fur on poison oak and then comes a rubs up against you, you may get some urushiol on your body and contract a rash. Worse yet, if that sweet kitty of yours rolls in some poison oak and lies down on your pillowcase, you can get a nasty case of poison oak on your face and neck. Likewise, if you wear long pants and long sleeves while working in the yard and your clothing rubs up against poison oak and then you come in contact with the urushiol on your clothing, you can get a rash from that contact.
However, you can't make the rash spread by scratching poison ivy or by breaking open the pustules. Once you've washed off the urushiol, you can't make poison oak spread. Your rash does not contain urushiol; it is simply a reaction to the urushiol that came in contact with your skin. This means you cannot catch poison oak from another person who has a rash but has already washed, nor can you make your own case of poison oak spread by touching one area to another.