A poison ivy rash in children is an allergic reaction to the poison ivy plant. Your child may develop a skin rash within 24 to 72 hours of exposure to this plant. They may experience itching and redness initially, but in severe cases, patches of fluid-filled blisters may appear on the affected site.
Most children who are allergic to this plant have serious reactions in the first week of contact. However, the rash might last for up to three weeks in some.
Read this post to learn more about the symptoms, treatment, and home remedies for poison ivy itching in children.
What Does A Poison Ivy Plant Look Like?
Poison ivy is found in many parts of the US and is said to be one of the leading causes for contact dermatitis. The plant grows like a vine or as a shrub along the ground or by climbing other plants. It does not grow in Alaska, Hawaii, and some parts of the western US (1). However, children may encounter poison ivy plants in school or other outdoor environments. To minimize the potential risks of outdoor exposure, implementing boundaries and promptly removing poisonous plants can be beneficial preventive measures.
The plant has distinctive trifoliate leaves, each with three leaflets and each leaflet with a serrated edge. The leaf surface is smooth and turns red during fall while staying green in other seasons. Poison ivy produces green or off-white fruits during fall. This plant also develops thin, hair-like aerial roots, which may help identify it. It is risky to touch any part of the plant in any season.
Poison oak and sumak may produce similar allergic skin reactions.
Why Does Poison Ivy Cause A Rash?
The allergic reaction is due to an oil called urushiol that is found throughout the plant. If the skin comes in contact with any part of the plant, leaves, stem, or the sap oozing from a broken twig, the urushiol is absorbed into the child’s skin. The immune system detects the oil and mounts a response that leads to an allergic reaction, which is known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis.
The time taken for a rash to appear could vary depending on several factors, including the child’s sensitivity towards poison ivy and the amount of urushiol absorbed. Usually, the first symptoms appear within 24 to 48 hours after contact with poison ivy (2).
Is Poison Ivy Rash Contagious?
No, poison ivy rash cannot spread from one person to another. The rash only appears on the skin that came in contact with urushiol. The fluid from broken blisters or rashes does not spread the rash to other parts of the body (1).
However, there are other ways through which the allergic skin reaction can spread.
- If the child does not wash hands after touching poison ivy and touches other parts of the body, then the oil might spread and cause a reaction.
- If your pet comes in contact with the poison ivy plant, and the child touches the pet, then the child might be exposed to the oil and get an allergic reaction.
- Contaminated clothes, shoes, or other objects that come in contact with the plant can spread the oil to the rest of the body and other people.
Signs and Symptoms Of Poison Ivy Rash On Children
If you suspect a poison ivy rash on your child’s skin, then look for these symptoms.
- Redness and swelling of the exposed area
- Severe itching
- Small bumps that turn into blisters
- Fluid-filled blisters in multiple streak-like arrangements
- Eruption of blisters
In a week or two, the blisters would crust over and fall. In mild and medium cases, this allergic reaction can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) creams to ease the swelling and itching.
When To Take Your Child To The Doctor?
Take your child to a doctor if you notice any of the following (3):
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty swallowing
- One or both the eyelids swell shut
- Itch all over the body and nothing seems to make it better
- Rash on the face, eyes, genitals, or other parts of the body
- Severe itching that keeps the child up at night
- Pus oozing from a blister, soft yellow scabs or body temperature more than 100°F (37.7°C), indicating an infection
- Rashes lasting more than three weeks
The severe symptoms of the allergy are usually seen four to seven days after exposure to urushiol.
The doctor or pediatric dermatologist may conduct a physical examination to diagnose the plant-induced rash. They may also inquire about any additional symptoms and your child’s medical history.
Treatment For Poison Ivy Rash
Once your child gets in contact with the allergy-causing oil, it will start to penetrate the skin rapidly, so care should be taken to remove it from the skin, ideally within ten minutes (2).
- Wash the affected area thoroughly with a mild soap.
- Remove your child’s clothes and shoes and carefully wash them thoroughly to prevent the spreading of the infection from any remains of the oil.
- Apply a cold compress on the affected area to soothe the itching and swelling.
- Apply calamine lotion or a corticosteroid cream to ease the itching. Calamine will provide immediate relief though short-lasting while corticosteroid will provide longer-lasting relief. Corticosteroid is not to be applied more than four times in a day, while calamine can be applied as many times as required.
- Oozing from rash can be minimized by application of over-the-counter creams or lotions like calcium acetate.
- Itchiness can be diminished by colloidal oatmeal application and soaking in a cool bath.
- Antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) may induce sleepiness and help the children take their mind off itching.
- Instruct your child not to scratch or pinch the rashes and blisters.
- Also don’t use any antiseptic (Soframycin) or anesthetic (Benzocaine) creams which have not been prescribed by a doctor.
Your child’s doctor may prescribe corticosteroid creams or other ointments specifically meant for urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. Other medicines may be prescribed depending on the severity of the rash and presence of other symptoms. Oral corticosteroids may be required for a severe rash. Infected blisters may require treatment with oral antibiotics. But these decisions can be taken only by a doctor.
Home Remedies For Poison Ivy Rash
Along with the OTC medications, you can follow some safe home remedies to soothe the itching. However, do note that these remedies are based on anecdotal evidence. Therefore, it is advised to try them after consulting a doctor.
- Aloe vera gel: Extract fresh aloe vera gel and apply it on the rashes, let it remain for ten minutes (6). Its anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties are said to help.
- Oatmeal: Giving frequent baths with colloidal oatmeal may relieve the symptoms of poison ivy rashes (2).
- Menthol: Studies suggest that menthol in the concentration of 1 to 3% could relieve itching (5).
- Apple cider vinegar: It has been anecdotally used as a treatment for poison ivy symptoms. Dilute a few drops of apple cider vinegar in water and apply it on the rashes, leave it for ten minutes and rinse with water (7).
If any of the home remedies cause pain, discomfort, or intensify the itching, then stop using them immediately. If your child has a history of allergies, then avoid home remedies and see a doctor.
Prevention Of Poison Ivy Reaction
The best way to prevent poison ivy rash is to avoid contact with the plant. The following preventive tips can be helpful.
- Help your child identify a poison ivy plant.
- Always dress your child in long sleeve shirts and full pants while venturing out into the woods.
- Wash clothing and trekking gear with mild soap after a trip to the woods.
- If you suspect your pet might have come in contact with the plant, do not touch them with bare hands and shower them as soon as you get home.
- Take care not to burn suspicious plants in your garden as the smoke from a poison ivy plant can also cause an allergic reaction.
- Apply ivy block creams containing the compound Bentoquatam 15 minutes before possible contact with the plant. Lotions with Bentoquatam are available over-the-counter. Consult a doctor before using it in children younger than six years of age (8). Do not apply Bentoquatam to poison ivy rashes since it does not cure existing allergic reaction.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is hydrogen peroxide good for the treatment of poison ivy rash?
Hydrogen peroxide has been historically used as an antiseptic to treat wounds. However, sufficient data is unavailable to establish its effectiveness and safety for treating poison ivy rashes (9).
2. Should you cover a poison ivy rash or let it breathe for better recovery?
Children often tend to scratch their rashes; therefore, you may cover their blisters at night to prevent them from scratching and getting infections (10).
3. Can you use Caladryl on children?
No, you should not use Caladryl lotion for children as it gets absorbed through their skin. It is ideal to use calamine lotion (10).
Poison ivy rash on children occurs when they are exposed to playgrounds and other outdoor spaces surrounded by plants and trees. Therefore, you must educate your child about the poison ivy plant, its appearance, and ways to identify it. And you may also avoid areas where this plant might be present. OTC medications are usually prescribed to decrease the severity of the rashes. Still, in case of severe inflammation and itching, it is advised to consult a doctor or a skin specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment measures.
Infographic: Clearing The Doubts About Poison Ivy
Poison ivy exposure is quite common, yet certain myths surround it. Some of them can have harmful consequences if followed as facts. Go through the infographic below to learn the myths and facts about poison ivy to prevent exposure better.
- The poison ivy is easily recognizable due to its trifoliate structure and airborne hair-like roots.
- The oil from the plant can cause an allergic reaction in children if they contact any part of the plant
- They may develop symptoms such as blisters, itchiness, and redness.
- Home remedies such as aloe vera gel and oatmeal can help manage the condition.
- Severe symptoms such as breathing difficulty, swollen eyelids, and persistent rash require medical attention.
2. Nancy P Lee, Edgar R Arriola; Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac Dermatitis; Drug Information Center; UCLA Medical Center
3. Poison ivy – oak – sumac rash; U.S. National Library of Medicine
4. Babar Ali, et. al.; Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review; Asian Pacific Journal Of Tropical Biomedicine
5. Sarina B. Elmariah, and Ethan A. Lerner; Topical Therapies for Pruritus; NCBI
6. Oliver Grundmann; Aloe Vera Gel Research Review; Natural Medicine Journal
7. Carol S. Johnson, and Cindy A. Gaas; Vinegar: Medicinal Uses and Antiglycemic Effect; NCBI
8. Bentoquatam Topical; U.S. National Library of Medicine
9. Safety Assessment of Hydrogen Peroxide as Used in Cosmetics; Cosmetic Ingredient Review
10. Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac: Treatment and Prevention; Nationwide Children’s
11. Poison Ivy Rash in Children; Johns Hopkins Medicine
12. Poison Ivy; St. Louis Children’s Hospital