With summer upon us, parents are itching to ask me questions about poison ivy. Rather than leave no leaf unturned, let me provide some information on this common problem.
First, the motto “Leaves of three, let them be” is quite true. It is only when the leaves, roots, stems, or twigs of plants are damaged or torn that the oil from this plant is released. Poison ivy oil will cause an allergic reaction characterized by red, itchy patches or blisters wherever the oil is deposited on the skin. This reaction will happen in in 70 percent of the population, usually within anywhere from four hours to four days after being exposed to poison ivy oil.
The name of the game is to wash your child thoroughly with soap and water as soon as you suspect they have been exposed to poison ivy. A shower or hosing down of your child is far better than a washcloth, which can spread those oils instead of remove them.
Wash your child’s clothes, shoes, toys, garden tools and even the towel used after the shower. Otherwise, the oil will be redeposited onto your child and maybe even onto you. In addition, the family pet might be carrying the oil home from the woods, so Spot might need a good hosing down as well.
Once the oil has been removed, your child is no longer contagious. Even if blisters with fluid form, those blisters do not contain the oil, and thus are not contagious even if they look like they should be. While scratching will not make the rash spread, it can lead to the rash becoming infected.
Thus treatment is directed to helping reduce the itch and ease the suffering while allowing the allergic reaction to diminish and eventually stop. Cool compresses with drying agents such as in calamine lotion or brown laundry soap or oatmeal baths will sooth the itch. A one-percent steroid cream may also decrease inflammation on the skin.
An oral antihistamine medication available over the counter may also help relieve the itching. If the rash involves the face or genitals, is getting worse despite the home treatments I have recommended, or the skin looks infected with redness, warmth, swelling or pus, please talk to your child’s health care professional. This person can determine if writing a prescription for steroids is needed to quiet down the inflammation or for an antibiotic if the rash has become infected.
Hopefully tips like this will do more than scratch the surface of your child’s skin when it comes to dealing with poison ivy.
Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.