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Pediatric Poison Ivy / Poison Oak

What is poison ivy/poison oak?

There are three native American plants that collectively can be called poison ivy:

  • Poison ivy
  • Poison oak
  • Poison sumac

These plants cause an allergic reaction in nearly 85 percent of the population. To be allergic to poison ivy, a child must first be sensitized to the oils. This means that next time there is contact with the plant, a rash may occur.

What causes an allergic reaction?

The resin in poison ivy contains an oily substance called urushiol. Urushiol is easily transferred from the plants to other objects, including toys, garments, and animals. What’s more, this chemical can remain active for a year or longer. The oil is also present in the smoke when poison ivy is burned.

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction to poison ivy/poison oak?

The reaction caused by contact with poison ivy is usually contact dermatitis, which may occur several hours, days, or even weeks after exposure.

Poison ivy usually causes a rash followed by bumps and blisters that itch. Occasionally swelling occurs in the area of contact. Eventually, the blisters break, ooze, and then crust over.

What is the treatment for poison ivy/poison oak?

Avoiding the poisonous plants is the best prevention. It is important to teach children what the plants look like and not to touch the plants.

If contact with the plants has already occurred, remove the oils from the skin as soon as possible. Cleaning with an ordinary soap within six hours after the initial exposure is effective, but be sure to repeat the cleaning with the soap three times. Alcohol-based wipes can also be used to remove the oils. Wash all clothes and shoes to remove any trace of the oils.

If the blisters and rash are on the face, near the genitals, or all over the body, a physician should be notified. After a medical history and physical examination, the physician may prescribe a steroid cream, oral steroids, or steroid injections to help with the swelling and itching.

Is poison ivy/poison oak contagious?

Poison ivy/ poison oak cannot be spread from person to person by touching the blisters, or from the fluid inside the blisters. It can be spread, however, if the oils remain on the skin, clothes, or shoes. This is why washing the child's hands, clothes, and shoes as soon as possible is very important.

To prevent poison ivy/poison oak, follow these tips:

  • Teach all family members to recognize the plants
  • Wear long pants and long sleeves when poison ivy or poison oak are in the vicinity
  • Wash all clothes and shoes immediately after anyone has been outside
  • Teach children not to touch a pet that might have been in contact with a poisonous plant
  • Wash children’s hands thoroughly
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The Division of Dermatology at Children's National Hospital continues to expand services as more families seek our expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the skin, hair and nails.

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