By Sue Hubbard, M.D.
Here at the height of summer, with everyone spending more time outside, I’m seeing a rising wave of patients with contact dermatitis (rashes) after coming into contact with poisonous plants.
While allergies are slowing down a bit with the hotter weather, hikers, campers and kids just playing in the yard are coming in with rashes from poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. About 50 percent of people who come into contact with the leaves of these plants will have a reaction.
Keeping in mind the adage “leaves of three, let them be” continues to be the best way to prevent an unpleasant episode while you’re savoring some down time outdoors. Of course, what you wear can make a difference, but few children are willing to don long sleeves and pants this time of year.
If you realize you’ve been exposed to the leaves of poison ivy, oak or sumac, and therefore, the urushiol (oil on the leaf), wash all areas of exposed skin ASAP with some a product like Tecru, Sanfel or Goop Hand Cleaner. If you don’t have any of those, use dish washing soap.
It may take up to four days after exposure to develop a rash. Lesions may also appear at unpredictable times depending on the location and length of exposure to the urushiol. The rash triggered by poison ivy, oak and sumac is usually very itchy, and often appears in linear clusters or little vesicles or blisters. The rash does not spread by scratching or from the fluid inside the blisters (this is a myth). You cannot give anyone else poison ivy if you wash off the urushiol.
The best treatments relieve the itching and irritation. Keep your child’s nails short and hands clean so scratching will not cause a secondary bacterial infection. Oatmeal baths (Aveeno) or cool compresses (Dommeboro) can help control itching. An over-the-counter steroid cream can reduce the inflammation, although a stronger prescription steroid cream may be needed.
Also try calamine lotion or astringent to calm the irritation. Sarna is another good lotion for itching. Oral antihistamines like diphenhydramine (Benadryl) really don’t help with this type of itching, as it’s not due to histamines, but may provide a bit of sedation so a child can sleep.
If the rash spreads to the face and around the eyes, or begins to look infected. It’s time for a visit to the pediatrician. For severe cases, oral steroids may be necessary. It sometimes takes 10-14 days for the rash to go away. Oh, and getting overheated only makes you itch more.
(Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award-winning pediatrician, medical editor and media host. “The Kid’s Doctor” TV feature can be seen on more than 90 stations across the U.S. Submit questions at http://www.kidsdr.com. The Kid’s Doctor e-book, “Tattoos to Texting: Parenting Today’s Teen,” is now available from Amazon and other e-book vendors.)