Poison ivy, poison sumac and poison oak and your child

My son has a really bad rash from poison ivy or poison sumac. The rash is mainly around his face, ears, neck and throat area. Other than Benadryl and Aveeno baths, what can I do for his discomfort?

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Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Poison ivy grows primarily as a vine except in the Great Lakes region, where it grows as a shrub. Poison sumac grows in standing water, and poison oak primarily grows as a shrub except in the West where it may be found as a vine. All of these can cause a rash from the oil found in the sap of these plants. The rash, which is a type of allergic reaction, is actually caused by the body's reaction to the oil rather than by the oil itself.

In order for someone to have this reaction to the oil, they first have to be sensitized to it. In other words, we are not born with this allergy, rather the body first gets sensitized to the oil after repeated exposure to it. It is only after this sensitization that the rash appears after the next exposure. And if a long period of time goes by between exposures, a person's sensitivity may significantly decrease such that the next time they come in contact with the plant, no reaction occurs.

The best way to deal with poison ivy, sumac or oak is to learn what it looks like and make sure your children do not come in contact with it. Personally, I find this quite difficult, both because identification of the plant may be difficult, but also depending upon where you live, it may be quite ubiquitous. But I encourage you to do your best at trying to eliminate these pesky plants. Remember, the oil is what causes the problem, and it is virtually invisible. Therefore, after pulling these plants or applying herbicide, be careful about what you do with your gloves as the oil will be all over them. NEVER BURN THESE PLANTS. The oil may become airborne, and if inhaled, it can cause this same severe reaction in the lungs.

Next page: Some common myths about poison ivy/oak/sumac

Some common myths about poison ivy/oak/sumac:

False- Scratching the blisters or rash will spread it to other parts of the body.

True- Only those parts of the body that were originally exposed to the plant or oil will be affected.

False- The rash is contagious to other people.

True- Only if the person with the rash has not washed off the oil from his clothing can they be a cause of giving someone else the rash.

False- Once you get the rash, you will always get the rash if you come in contact with the plant

True- As stated above, with time, some people lose their sensitivity to the oil.

False- Dead poison ivy/sumac/oak is safe.

True- Even the dead plants will still have the oil in it and can still cause problems.

If you come in contact with plant:

Wash all exposed areas with cold running water as soon as possible. Soap is not necessary as water inactivates the oil.

Wash all clothing outside with a hose before bringing it inside. Handle the clothing as little as possible until it is drenching wet. Because the oil may remain active for months, be aware of all objects that may have been exposed to the oil.

If you develop the rash:

Cool showers seem to help.

Calamine lotion may help over mild rashes.

Oatmeal seems to calm the itch.

• In severe cases, or cases involving a significant amount of the face, see your doctor who may prescribe oral steroids to decrease the swelling.

I am sorry to hear about your son. I am sure that his discomfort is distressing, for both of you. The measures you have already taken are great, and my only advice for you would be to have him see his doctor because the extent and severity of his rash may require the use of oral steroids.

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