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ALLERGY AND ASTHMA :: Types of Allergens

Poison Ivy / Poison Oak

What is poison ivy/poison oak?

There are three native American plants that collectively may be called poison ivy:

  • poison ivy
  • poison oak
  • poison sumac

These plants can cause an allergic reaction in nearly 85 percent of the population. To be allergic to poison ivy, your child must first be "sensitized" to the oils. This means that next time there is 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, pets, and can be present in the smoke from a burning plant.

What are the symptoms of an allergic reaction to poison ivy/poison oak?

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 then crust over.

Treatment for poison ivy/poison oak:

Making sure your child avoids the poisonous plants is the best treatment. 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, you should 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 the oils. Wash all clothes and shoes also, because the oils can remain on these.

If the 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 physician may prescribe a steroid cream, oral steroids, or steroid injections to help with the swelling and itching.

Is poison ivy/poison oak contagious?

Poison ivy/ poison oak cannot 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, clothes, or shoes. This is why washing your child's hands, clothes, and shoes as soon as possible is very important.

Preventing poison ivy/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.

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Online Resources of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology

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It is important to remember the health information found on this website is for reference only not intended to replace the advice and guidance of your healthcare provider. Always seek the advice of your physician with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.
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