Keep Kids Healthy

Treating Hard to Control Poison Ivy

It is better to learn to avoid poison ivy than to get a rash and have to get it treated. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

It is usually not hard to identify a child with a poison ivy rash, especially a classic case of poison ivy, which might include a child with a known exposure to poison ivy after a camping trip, hike in the woods, or day at the lake, who a few days later develops a red, itchy rash all over his body.

The problem is that many parents don’t remember the “known exposure,” especially if it is the child’s first poison ivy rash.

The Poison Ivy Rash

Aerial roots on the stems can help you identify poison ivy, and yes, they can trigger a rash too. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

After exposure to the leaves, stems, or roots of a poison ivy plant, children develop symptoms of poison ivy within 8 hours to a week or so, including:

Keep in mind that children exposed to poison sumac and poison oak, other members of the genus Rhus or Toxicodendron, can get these same symptoms that we generically refer to as poison ivy symptoms.

(Using medical terminology, these children develop rhus dermatitis or allergic contact dermatitis, an intensely pruritic, linear, erythematous, papulovesicular rash after exposure to the urushiol oil in poison ivy.)

Treating Poison Ivy

It seems like everyone has their favorite treatments for poison ivy.

These basic treatments for poison ivy are usually going to help control the itch, and might include:

Is that all you need?

While these treatments might provide temporary relief and might be enough for very mild reactions, those with more moderate or severe symptoms will likely require systemic steroids.

Does that mean a steroid shot?

That might be what your doctor suggests or what some parents request, but keep in mind that it might wear off too soon, leading your child’s poison ivy symptoms to flare up again (rebound rash). That’s why most experts recommend a longer, tapering course of oral steroids instead of a single shot. A steroid dose pack is also often avoided as treatment for poison ivy, as the dose might be too low and it typically doesn’t last long enough.

Since the poison ivy rash might not go away for as long as three weeks, getting treated with systemic steroids can be an especially good idea if you have a moderate or severe case.

Avoiding Poison Ivy

A classic poison ivy plant in the ‘leaves of three, let it be’ configuration. Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

Since very few people are actually immune to poison ivy, it is best to learn to avoid getting exposed to it in the first place.

You can start with the old adage, ‘leaves of three, let it be,’ but you really have to look at a lot pictures of poison ivy to get good at avoiding it. And to be safe, learn to avoid the places where poison ivy grows – along tree lines, around lakes and ponds, along trails, and in wooden or wild areas, etc.

Or at least do your best to avoid the plants by wearing long pants, a shirt with long sleeves, and gloves, etc., to avoid skin contact even if you are around poison ivy while hiking, playing along a creek, or fishing near a lake.

What can you do if you have been exposed to poison ivy? If you can rinse the exposed area with rubbing alcohol, like within 10 minutes, then you might avoid a reaction. After that, the oil in poison ivy, urushiol, will likely be stuck and trigger a rash. Of course, you don’t want to be applying rubbing alcohol to a large area of your child’s skin though or allow your child to use it if they will be unsupervised. And be sure to wash it off afterwards.

Commercial products might be more useful (and safer) to help you avoid poison ivy reactions and  include:

Although it is best to use the products immediately, within 10 to 30 minutes after exposure to poison ivy, if used anytime before you get a rash, you might decrease your symptoms. And if you get lucky, you might not get any symptoms at all.

Myths and Facts About Poison Ivy

Would you recognize this as poison ivy? It will still trigger a rash… Photo by Vincent Iannelli, MD

As common as poison ivy is, there are many myths and misconceptions about it, including that:

And remember that your pediatrician can be helpful if you think your child has poison ivy. (true)

What To Know About Hard to Control Poison Ivy

While poison ivy isn’t contagious, it can make you miserable if you don’t learn to avoid it and treat poison ivy rashes properly with anti-itch creams and steroids.

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