“Stop scratching!” “But Mom, it itches!” Has this exchange taken place in your home? If redness, swelling and weeping blisters are present, and your child has been outside playing in a field or grassy area, chances are good he/she has come into contact with poison ivy. Poison ivy usually affects the hands and any area the hands may touch after coming into contact with the plant. Areas shaped like streaks or patches occur 1 to 2 weeks after exposure the first time a child gets poison ivy. The second time your child is exposed (and every time after) the rash will appear 1-2 days after contact and usually last for approximately 2 weeks. It’s important to remember treatment reduces the severity, not the length of having the rash.
Of course prevention is best, but not always possible. Teach your children, “Leaves of three, let them be!” Also, have your child wear long pants or socks when playing or walking in areas that may contain poison ivy. If you think your child has had contact with poison ivy, wash the exposed areas of skin with soap for 5 minutes as soon as possible. Don’t forget pets and clothing as well!
- Cleanse the area with soap and cool water.
- Soak the involved area in cool water or massage it with an ice cube wrapped in a towel for 20 minutes as many times a day as needed. Then let it air dry. This will reduce itching and oozing. Aveeno or oatmeal baths may also be soothing.
- Apply 1% hydrocortisone cream 4 times a day or as often as the rash begins to itch (keep the cream in the refrigerator, it feels better cold), also cut fingernails short.
- If itching persists, give Benadryl orally every 6 hours as needed. Consult your pediatrician before giving if your child is already on an antihistamine such as Claritin or Zyrtec, if your child is under 6 months of age, or if your child weighs less than 14 pounds.
Anything that has poison ivy oil or sap on it is contagious for several weeks. This includes the shoes and clothes your child wore, as well as any pets that may have oil on their fur. Bathe all pets and wash all clothes and shoes that were worn on the day of exposure. The fluid from the blisters however, is not contagious. Therefore, scratching the poison ivy sores will not cause it to spread.
Please note, you would need to call your pediatrician immediately if the rash involves more than one-fourth of the body, or if your child has had a severe poison ivy reaction in the past. Call during office hours if the following are present:
- The face, eyes, lips, or genitals are involved
- The itching interferes with sleep
- The rash is open and oozing
- Any big blisters are present
- Signs of infection occur, such as pus or soft yellow scabs.
This article was written by Hope Terry, a pediatric nurse at the St. Louis Children's Hospital Answer Line.