Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac

What are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac?

Poison ivy and poison oak, along with poison sumac, are three native plants — collectively called poison ivy — whose oils can cause an allergic reaction in nearly 85 percent of the population. The reaction is characterized by a skin rash, followed by bumps and blisters that itch.

To be allergic to poison ivy, your child must first be "sensitized" to the oils. This means that the next time your child has contact with the plant, a rash may occur.

What causes an allergic reaction?

The resin in the plants contains an oily substance called urushiol. Urushiol is easily transferred from the plants to other objects, including toys, garments and animals. This chemical can remain active for a year or longer. It is important to know that the oils can also be transferred from clothing and pets, and can be present in the smoke from a burning plant.

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction?

The reaction is usually contact dermatitis, which may occur several hours, days or even weeks after exposure. The dermatitis is characterized by a rash followed by bumps and blisters that itch. Sometimes, swelling occurs in the area of contact. Eventually, the blisters break, ooze and crust over.

Poison ivy/poison oak can't be spread from person to person by touching the blisters, or from the fluid inside the blisters. It can be spread, however, if the oils remain on the skin, clothing or shoes. This is why washing your child's hands, clothes and shoes as soon as possible is very important.

To prevent exposure to poison ivy or poison oak:

  • Teach all family members to recognize the plants.
  • Make sure your child wears long pants and long sleeves when poison ivy or poison oak are in the vicinity.
  • Wash all clothes and shoes immediately after your child has been outside.
  • Make sure your child does not touch a pet that might have been in contact with a poisonous plant.
  • Wash your child's hands thoroughly.

How is an allergic reaction treated?

Making sure your child avoids the poisonous plants in the first place is the best option. It is important to teach your children what the plants look like — and not to touch them.

If contact with the plants has already occurred:

  • Remove the oils from the skin as soon as possible.
  • Cleansing with an ordinary soap within six hours after the initial exposure has proven to be effective. Repeat the cleaning with the soap three times.
  • There are also alcohol-based wipes that help remove oils from the skin.
  • Wash all clothes and shoes to remove any remaining oils.

If the poison ivy blisters and rash are on the face, near the genitals or all over the body, your child's physician should be notified. After a medical history and physical examination, your child's doctor may prescribe a steroid cream, oral steroids or steroid injections to help with the swelling and itching.