Poison Ivy Treatment and Prevention Guide

Outsmarting Poison Ivy and Treating the Rash

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While the outdoor play is healthy for kids, poison ivy can be a big problem for children playing outside. Poison ivy can also be a hazard to gardeners, people landscaping their yards, hikers, campers, and anyone else who likes to spend time outdoors.

Although some people truly are immune to poison ivy, most people develop a rash after coming into contact with poison ivy or the similar plants, poison sumac and poison oak.

If you think you are immune because you have never developed a rash before, keep in mind that it can sometimes take multiple exposures or several years before you finally begin to develop an allergic response to urushiol, the chemical in poison ivy that triggers the rash that most people get.

Whether or not you think that your kids are immune to poison ivy, it is a good idea to not take any chances and to teach your kids how to recognize and avoid poison ivy. Unfortunately, the old 'leaves of three, let it be' phrase isn't usually enough to help kids avoid poison ivy.

Avoiding Poison Ivy

First, review some pictures of poison ivy so that you and your kids know what it looks like. Also, see  how to identify poison oak and poison sumac as can trigger the same rash. These pictures demonstrate a lot of things you should look for to help you identify and avoid poison ivy, including:

  • Three leaflets ('leaves of three, let it be')
  • The middle leaflet has a longer stalk (petiole) than the other two
  • Leaflets are fatter near their base
  • Elliptical leaflets with slight lobes
  • Leaflets are all about the same size
  • No thorns along the stem
  • Clusters of green or white berries may be present
  • Aerial roots may be visible on the stem

You can also block contact by dressing your kids in long pants and a shirt with long sleeves, boots, and gloves when they will be most at risk, especially when playing in wooden areas, around lakes, or going on hikes.

Treating Exposures

If you are exposed, according to the FDA, you should quickly (within 10 minutes):

  1. First, cleanse exposed areas with rubbing alcohol.
  2. Next, wash the exposed areas with water only (no soap yet, since soap can move the urushiol, which is the oil from the poison ivy that triggers the rash, around your body and actually make the reaction worse).
  3. Now, take a shower with soap and warm water.
  4. Lastly, put gloves on and wipe everything you had with you, including shoes, tools, and your clothes, with rubbing alcohol and water.

You have to be quick. If you wait more than 10 minutes, the urushiol will likely stay on your skin and trigger the poison ivy rash. You may not be able to stop it on your skin, but you might still scrub your nails and wipe off your shoes, etc. so that you don't spread the urushiol to new areas.

Commercial products, like Zanfel, Ivy Cleanse Towelettes, and Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub, are also available over-the-counter, if you don't want to use rubbing alcohol.

Remember that poison ivy isn't contagious so touching the rash won't actually spread it. Since your kids get poison ivy a lot, having a "poison ivy action kit" ready, with rubbing alcohol, a large bottle of water and some soap might be a good idea.

Since rubbing alcohol can be poisonous, children should be supervised with it though and it is not something you should send off into the woods with them.

Unfortunately, few people recognize their poison ivy exposure or are aware enough to wash off the urushiol within 10 minutes to prevent a reaction. Others don't even recognize their exposure to poison ivy. Unless they are one of the lucky few who is immune to poison ivy, many of these children who are exposed to poison ivy will eventually develop a rash.

Symptoms of Poison Ivy

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:

  • An intensely itchy rash
  • Red bumps that often are in a straight line or streaks, from where the poison ivy plant had contact with your child's skin
  • Vesicles and blisters that are filled with fluid

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 are generically referred to as poison ivy symptoms above.

(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.)

Other characteristic signs and symptoms of poison ivy are that the rash will worsen over days or weeks. without treatment with steroids. The rash may not go away for up to three weeks without treatment. Many children will have worsening symptoms with each exposure. Some areas of a child's skin that had less exposure to the poison ivy plant will get the rash later than others.

Poison Ivy Treatments

Typical treatments for poison ivy are going to be directed at helping to control your child's itching and can include non-steroidal topical medications, topical steroids, oral antihistamines (Benadryl), and/or oral steroids (prednisone) or a steroid shot.

Wet dressings, compresses, or soaks with Domeboro solution mixed with water (modified Burow's Solution) or Aveeno oatmeal baths can be especially soothing for itchy rashes.

Examples include:

  • Atarax (hydroxyzine, a prescription oral antihistamine)
  • Aveeno Anti-Itch Cream with Natural Colloidal Oatmeal
  • Aveeno 1% Hydrocortisone Anti-Itch Cream (OTC topical steroid)
  • Band-Aid Anti-Itch Gel
  • Caladryl Clear Topical Analgesic Skin Lotion
  • Calamine Lotion
  • Cortizone 10 (OTC topical steroid)
  • Cutivate cream 0.05% (prescription topical steroid)
  • Domeboro Astringent Solution Powder Packets
  • Gold Bond Maximum Strength Medicated Anti-Itch Cream
  • Itch-X Anti-Itch Gel with Soothing Aloe Vera
  • Locoid cream 0.1% (prescription topical steroid)
  • Triamcinolone acetonide 0.1% (prescription topical steroid)

Newer medications that are supposed to target poison ivy symptoms include:

  • Burts's Bees Poison Ivy Soap
  • Cortaid Poison Ivy Care Treatment Kit
  • Ivarest Medicated Cream
  • IvyStat
  • Tecnu Extreme Poison Ivy Scrub
  • Zanfel Wash For Poison Ivy, Oak & Sumac

If your child has a history of severe reactions to poison ivy or his rash is quickly spreading, be sure to see your pediatrician right away for professional help. Keep in mind that many children need prescription strength oral steroids or a steroid shot to avoid severe poison ivy reactions.

Where You Encounter It

If your child gets a poison ivy rash, or especially if he gets it over and over, it is important to figure out where he is getting exposed to the poison ivy plants. Is it in your backyard, at the playground, or on the way to school? According to the FDA, other things to look for to avoid poison ivy and related plants include that:

Poison Ivy

  • Grows around lakes and streams in the Midwest and the East
  • Woody, ropelike vine, a trailing shrub on the ground, or a free-standing shrub
  • Normally three leaflets (groups of leaves all on the same small stem coming off the larger main stem), but may vary from groups of three to nine
  • Leaves are green in the summer and red in the fall
  • Yellow or green flowers and white berries

Poison Oak

  • Eastern (from New Jersey to Texas) grows as a low shrub; Western (along the Pacific coast) grows to 6-foot-tall clumps or vines up to 30 feet long
  • Oak-like leaves, usually in clusters of three
  • Clusters of yellow berries

Poison Sumac

  • Grows in boggy areas, especially in the Southeast
  • Rangy shrub up to 15 feet tall
  • 7 to 13 smooth-edged leaflets
  • Glossy pale yellow or cream-colored berries

Getting Rid of Poison Ivy in Your Yard

Once you identify poison ivy, especially if it is in your backyard, you will want to get rid of it, unless it is a part of your yard that you and your kids can simply avoid. Unfortunately, trying to get rid of poison ivy can be difficult and dangerous, since the poison ivy plants often grow back and you run the very big risk of getting exposed while trying to kill the plants.

Some options to consider to get rid of poison ivy include:

  • Call a professional landscaper to remove the poison ivy plants, especially if you have a lot of poison ivy in your yard.
  • Spray the poison ivy plants with an herbicide, such as Roundup or Ortho Poison Ivy Killer, keeping in mind that they can also kill surrounding plants too.
  • Manually remove the poison ivy plants, including the roots.
  • Repeat spraying or manually removing the poison ivy plants as they grow back.

If removing the poison ivy plants on your own, be sure to wear protection and keep in mind that urushiol can remain on your clothing and gloves, etc., causing a rash if you later touch them. It's best to wear gloves and clothes you can simply trash so you aren't bringing the toxic oil into your house, washing machine, and clothes dryer.

Also, be sure to properly dispose of the poison ivy plants, since even a dead poison ivy plant can trigger a reaction. Also, never burn a poison ivy plant, as that can trigger a deadly reaction to anyone who is exposed to the smoke.

Sources

  • Curtis G, Lewis AC. Treatment of severe poison ivy: a randomized, controlled trial of long versus short course oral prednisone. J Clin Med Res. 2014 Dec;6(6):429-34
  • Habif TP. Clinical Dermatology: A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy. Elsevier; 2016.
  • Outsmarting Poison Ivy and Its Cousins. FDA Consumer, 8/4/2016. 

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