• Amelia Colley, M.D., FAAP
  • Philip Dawson, M.D., FAAP
  • Scott Iwashyna, M.D., FAAP

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Beware of Poison Oak, Poison Sumac and Poison Ivy

By Diann Ducharme

With the warm summer months finally here, children will be spending a good amount of time running through grassy, vine-covered brush looking for lost balls, plastic army soldiers, vacationing Barbie dolls and lightening bugs.


Inevitably a weird, red, itchy patch of skin will develop after these haphazard safaris. So parents should be well aware of the symptoms of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, as well as the best methods of prevention and treatment.

One or two days after the exposure, extremely itchy streaks or patches of redness and blisters will appear on the body parts that were exposed to the plants. The rash usually lasts about two weeks (sores should be dried up and no longer itchy in 10 to 14 days), and treatment may reduce the symptoms but does not cure the rash.


More than 50 percent of people are sensitive to the oils of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, all of which form the same kind of rash. 


The fluid from the sores is not contagious. However, oil or sap from the poisonous plant may remain on clothes, shoes, toys or a pet’s fur. This oil is contagious for about a week, so be sure to wash it off with soap and water.



If you believe that your child has had contact with a questionable plant, wash the exposed areas of skin as soon as possible with soap (any kind of soap will do) for five minutes. 


To reduce itching and oozing, soak the affected area in cold water or massage it with an ice cube for 20 minutes as often as necessary. Let the area air dry afterward.


Over-the-counter steroid creams can also reduce itching. The doctors at West End Pediatrics can suggest or prescribe appropriate brands of creams.


If itching is severe and doesn’t seem to be made better with the cold soaks and steroid creams, Benadryl (an antihistamine) may be given orally every six hours as needed.


Encourage your child not to scratch the rash.


Call the doctors at West End Pediatrics if the itching becomes severe, even with treatment, the skin looks infected with pus or soft yellow scabs, the rash lasts longer than two weeks, or you have other questions or concerns.



If you know that you are going to be walking through wooded areas, it is important to wear long pants and socks in order to prevent contact with poisonous plants.


It is also important for both adults and children to be able to recognize these plants. Poison ivy grows in all regions of North America. Poison oak grows in western North America and the southeastern region of the United States. Poison sumac grows in swamps in the southeast United States and is more difficult to recognize, since it has anywhere from seven to 13 leaves per stem. 


To be on the safe side, avoid all plants with three large, green leaves on each stem. Also look for shiny black spots on damaged leaves (the plant sap turns black when exposed to air).