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What To Do If Your Child Touches Poison Ivy

Watch for signs of infection!

Everyone wants their children to play outside in the summer, and usually that outdoor time results in nothing but a lot of fun and a tired kiddo at the end of the day. But it can't be ignored that there are some things about the great outdoors that are not necessarily so fantastic: bugs that bite, sun that burns, and of course, plants that sting.

Poison ivy is the best known of those plants, one that can leave a painful and blistered rash on the skin if you merely brush past the plant's leaves or stems. That rash is particularly concerning when it occurs on a child, especially one who isn't necessarily old enough to know how to avoid poison ivy and similar plants.

The good news is, while poison ivy is common, it's rarely dangerous. Most rashes will heal on their own in a matter of days and ones that become a bit more complicated — thanks to an infection, for example — usually don't have any long-lasting effects.

Here are 12 things you should know about poison ivy so you can keep your child (and yourself) rash-free this summer.

What is poison ivy?Poison ivy causes a swollen and red rash, called contact dermatitis, on areas of the skin that came in contact with broken parts of the plant, according to Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs. The rash may first appear in streaks or lines where the plant and skin made contact and usually shows up between 12 and 48 hours after contact occurred. A week can pass between contact and the rash, however. The rash is generally quite itchy.

A three-leaf poison ivy plant.
A three-leaf poison ivy plant.

Do other plants look like it? Leaves of three, let it be! Poison ivy and poison oak tend to have clusters of three leaves — but they do not always. Poison ivy can have as many as nine leaves per cluster, poison oak can have up to five, and poison sumac usually has seven to 13 small leaves, according to HealthLink BC.

What causes the rash? Poison ivy and related plants contain urushiol, a strong and irritating oil, in the sap of the plant's leaves, stems, and roots. Nearly all of the population is allergic to this oil, which is why almost all people have such a strong reaction when their skin comes in contact with even a tiny amount of it. Sensitivity appears to develop as you have more contact with poison ivy and similar plants; you may not get a rash the first time you brush up against it, but your skin could be very red and angry the fifth time.

Is it found in other plants? Poison oak and poison sumac also contain urushiol and can lead to reactions similar to the one experienced from poison ivy. Interestingly, it's found in other plants but does not seem to cause the same reaction. Pistachios, mangoes and cashews contain anacardic acid, a relative of urushiol that can cause itchiness but not rashes, according to Gardening Know How.

Cashew nuts growing on a tree.
Cashew nuts growing on a tree.

Where does it grow? In Canada, poison ivy can be found in every province but Newfoundland, according to HealthLink BC. Unfortunately, it's a plant that can grow in a variety of places: sandy, stony, or rocky shores; in thickets, in clearings, and along the borders of both woods and roadsides. It's a perennial plant that can spread either by seed or by producing roots. It doesn't grow well at high elevations or in the north.

What to do if you come in contact with poison ivy? If you believe your child has come into contact with poison ivy, wash any areas of skin you believe are affected with soap and water, Health Canada recommends. Use cold water instead of hot, as hotter water opens the pores and could, therefore, increase the absorption of urushiol. Use vinegar (2 tbs. per cup of water) or alcohol (1/2 cup to 1/2 cup water) if you don't have soap on hand. This might not prevent a reaction altogether but it can help to keep it from spreading over a wider area.

But my child wasn't in any plants! If your child touched something that had contact with poison ivy — for example, a ball that was retrieved from the bushes — they could have come into contact with urushiol that transferred onto the object from a plant. Only a tiny amount of the oil can cause a reaction, so it can be transferred from objects or people that have touched the plant — not just from touching poison ivy directly.

Does the rash change? Though it often initially appears as red streaks, the contact dermatitis caused by contact with poison ivy eventually becomes more blotchy as it becomes swollen. Generally, blisters will then form on the affected areas, and they will begin to crust over after a few days. And a rash may appear to be spreading because some spots show up later than others, but that is likely because the skin took longer to initially react to the oil.

Is it contagious? It doesn't take much urushiol to cause a rash, but the rash itself is not contagious — you can only get it from direct contact with the oil in the poison ivy plant. The blisters that usually appear on a poison ivy rash do not contain urushiol, so the rash is not spread when the blisters pop.

Close up macro poison ivy rash blisters on human skin.
Close up macro poison ivy rash blisters on human skin.

How do I treat the contact dermatitis? There's no specific cure for the rash caused by poison ivy, but you can relieve the symptoms while your skin recovers. Cold compresses or a cool bath can help soothe itchy skin and adding colloidal oatmeal, Epsom salts, or baking soda to the bath can relieve symptoms further. Gently rubbing the contact dermatitis with an ice cube over the course of the day can also be soothing. And the regular application of calamine lotion or a paste made with baking soda and water can also help relieve symptoms. But avoid topical antihistamines — these can trigger an allergic reaction and make things worse. A doctor may be able to prescribe stronger treatments if required.

When do I call a doctor? If your child develops a rash and you don't know for certain the cause, have them seen by their doctor — there could be many different causes other than poison ivy that should be ruled out if you're uncertain. You should also see a doctor if your child shows signs of infection, or if the rash is on the face of genitals (even if you know for certain it's poison ivy), the Mayo Clinic advises — prescription topical treatments might be required. And if your child develops a fever, or the rash takes more than two weeks to clear up, a visit to their medical care professional is warranted.

Is poison ivy dangerous? The contact dermatitis that results from poison ivy, or similar plants, can become infected. Watch for signs of infection — including fever, pus, or increasing redness of skin — if your child has been exposed and develops a rash. However, do not burn poison ivy in an attempt to get rid of it: if you inhale smoke from the burning plant, the sap can cause a rash inside your lungs which can be very painful and potentially life-threatening, according to the Government of Canada.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that urushiols is found in pistachios, mangoes and cashews.

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