Ask an Expert: Leaves of three, let them be

Q: How can I help my child find relief from a poison ivy rash?

A: As your children head into the great outdoors this summer, remind them of the simple rhyme, “Leaves of three, let them be.”

Poison ivy consists of shiny clusters of three leaves, typically found in shrubs, vines, and trees. Sometimes the leaves appear waxy and curled. Remember that poison oak and poison sumac are also known as poison ivy and there are different types around the United States.

An allergic reaction occurs when the oily substance from the plant — called urushiol — comes in direct contact with the skin. The oil can also be transferred to the skin from dogs, sports equipment, or clothing that have been exposed to the oily substance of poison ivy.

Remove the oil from the skin by showering with ordinary soap as soon as possible. Do not give your child a bath because the oils will mix with the water and spread to other areas of the body. Wash under the fingernails to prevent further spreading, and wash all clothing, shoes, and pets that may have had contact with the oil.

The allergic reaction may be noticeable within a few hours, but can sometimes take as long as a week to appear. Common symptoms include an itchy rash followed by bumps, blisters, and mild swelling. The blisters will then break and ooze on their own. Make sure your child does not break the blisters, since this can cause serious infections. Many people think poison ivy is contagious at this point, but the rash cannot be spread once the oil from the plant is washed off.

The rash typically lasts up to a month, but you can help ease your child’s discomfort and irritation with:

  • Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream
  • A cool or lukewarm oatmeal bath
  • Cold compresses or ice
  • Oral antihistamines, such as Benadryl (avoid Benadryl cream because it can make the rash worse)

If the rash becomes severe or your child develops a fever, notify your pediatrician immediately. The pediatrician may prescribe a steroid cream or oral steroids to help with the itching and swelling.

Several creams, such as IvyBlock and Stokogard, claim to prevent poison ivy rashes. These clay-based creams can prevent the oil from reaching the skin, but they must be reapplied as often as every hour.

Dr. Jennifer Alvarez is a pediatrician at Erlanger Bledsoe Internal Medicine & Pediatrics. She specializes in comprehensive care for the youngest members of your family, providing services ranging from physical exams to acute care and treatment of chronic childhood illnesses. If your child has a severe rash or fever associated with poison ivy contact, notify your pediatrician immediately. If you don’t have a pediatrician, find one here.