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Poison plants

A parent's guide to poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac

Poison plantsNothing ruins fun in the outdoors like a good case of poison ivy (or oak or sumac). While some people experience minor irritation when they come in contact with one of these poison plants, others can have an extreme reaction that lingers for days and even weeks. You don’t even need to touch the plant directly. Sometimes just contact with another person or object that is carrying the oils from the plant can cause irritation.

Avoiding the rash 

If you’re going to be outside in a wooded area, wear protective clothing such as pants, or high socks if wearing shorts. Make sure your child wears gloves if gardening or doing yard work alongside you. If you do come into contact with an irritant, washing any potential oils off of the skin and underneath the fingernails within 10 minutes of contact will improve the likelihood of reducing the symptoms. Consider using a barrier protectant such as “Ivy Block,” which needs to be reapplied every four hours.

Not all people are allergic to the oils on these plants – only about 50 percent of people are allergic. Those who are allergic can have varying reactions. If you or a child are allergic to poison ivy/oak/sumac, take caution when eating and peeling mangos and ingesting ginkgo products as these contain the same oil.

Recognizing the rash

If someone has been outdoors and starts to develop a rash, there’s a good chance it could be caused by poison ivy, oak or sumac. The rash is intensely itchy and usually appears within four hours to four days of contact with the irritant. Over time, the rash can blister. This can happen up to three weeks after the exposure. The fluid from the rash cannot spread the rash further.

Outsmarting Poison Ivy and Other Poisonous Plants_0114-1Treating the rash

Wash all clothing, towels, and bedding that may have come into contact with the oils in hot water to prevent secondary spread. Manage the itch with topical Calamine lotion. Use of a topical or oral antihistamine is not as helpful in managing the rash and discomfort, but it may be helpful due to sedating effects, which can help your child to sleep through the night without being awoken from the discomfort/itching.

If the lesions blister and begin to weep, use topical solutions such as Burow’s solution or Domeboro to help to dry the weeping.  You can use occlusive gauze over the area for comfort. Your doctor may consider prescribing topical or oral steroids depending on your child’s symptoms, severity, and area affected.

When to call your doctor

Most cases of poison ivy/oak/sumac can be managed at home, but if the rash is severe or has associated swelling of the limbs or around the eyes or involving the face, call your healthcare provider. Other reasons to call are if:

  • Most of your child’s body is covered in the rash.
  • The rash is present on the face or genitals.
  • The rash appears infected or is oozing pus.
  • The rash is not improving within two to three weeks.

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Lindsey Loew, MD, PediatricianLindsey Loew, MD, was born in Seoul, South Korea and adopted at 3 months of age.  She was raised in Littleton, Colorado, and attended Colorado State University.  She relocated to San Diego for a few years after graduation and worked for a cardiologist.  She then moved to Chicago to attend medical school prior to moving further east for her pediatric training at the University of Michigan.  She enjoys all that Ann Arbor has to offer — most of all, live music at the Ark, summer festivals, kayaking, hiking, and shopping at the outdoor farmer’s market. She sees patients at the Briarwood Center for Women, Children and Young Adults.

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