With summer upon us, parents are itching to ask me questions about poison ivy, and I certainly want to leave no leaf unturned when it comes to providing information on this common problem.
First the motto: “Leaves of three let them be.” It’s quite true. Especially the “let them be” part: It is only when poison ivy’s leaves, roots, stems, or twigs are damaged or torn that the oil from this plant is released. Poison ivy oil causes an allergic reaction in 70 percent of the population, usually within four hours to four days of exposure. As most of us know, red, itchy patches or blisters appear wherever the oil has touched the skin.

Thus 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 is far better than a washcloth, which can spread those oils further onto your child’s body.

And don’t just wash your child. Wash any clothes, shoes, toys, and garden tools that have been exposed – even the towel used after your child’s shower. Unless you wash everything, the poison ivy oil can still make contact with your child and even you. In addition, the family pet might be carrying the oil home from the woods, so if it’s been out and about in the woods during the day, it 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. Scratching will not make the rash spread, but it can lead to infection.

Poison ivy treatment is directed at helping reduce the rash’s 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. 

An oral antihistamine medication available over the counter may also help relieve the itching. If the rash involves the eyes or spreads all over the body, then contact your child’s physician to see if a brief course of steroids may be needed to decrease inflammation. If the rash is getting worse despite the home treatments I have recommended, or the skin looks infected with pain, warmth, swelling or pus, please contact or recontact your child’s doctor. They can determine if further treatment with an antibiotic is needed 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, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. 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.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.