Pediatric HealthSource: Poison Ivy

Mike Patrick, M.D.
Mike Patrick, M.D.

Q: My son is itching to play outdoors this summer and as I look outside, our woods are full of three-leaf friends. How can I protect my son against poison ivy as he ventures around the backyard?

A: As warm weather brings children outside, pesky poison ivy also comes to life. You may have heard, “leaves of three, let them be,” but have your pets heard this? As children play, they often are accompanied by furry friends. Your pet could be the culprit of your child's poison ivy rash.

Poison ivy, a three-leaflet, woody shrub, often blends in with surrounding weeds. It is easy for children and pets to come in contact with it as they chase after a ball or run through wooded areas. While children may come in contact with the plant itself, poison ivy also is spread through indirect contact. Unlike people, pets do not react to the oil, but they can get it on their fur. As your child plays with the cat or dog, they can get the poison ivy rash without ever coming into contact with the plant.

Poison ivy is harmless when the leaves go undisturbed. However, if the leaf is broken, it becomes easy for oil to get onto your child's skin if brushed against. The oil acts as an allergen, causing the immune system to rev up, attacking the plant oil and affecting the skin with a rash. For those without sensitivity, be aware that a reaction can occur at any time.

Always consult your child's pediatrician concerning your child's health.

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Mike Patrick, M.D., is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children's Hospital and host of PediaCast.

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If Exposure Occurs

The poison ivy rash often is accompanied by itching along with other symptoms.If a child comes in contact with poison ivy, parents can:

  • Wash the infected area with soap and water, within 15 to 20 minutes of contact if possible.
  • Change and wash all clothes, including shoes, backpacks and other items that were exposed to the sap to prevent continued contact.
  • Apply cool compresses and soothing lotion such as calamine to the rash to relieve the itching. Your child's pediatrician may suggest giving Benadryl to relieve itching, but always consult your doctor for the correct dosage.

If the rash persists or other remedies have not helped, talk to your pediatrician about alternative treatments to help alleviate symptoms.