Ah, July — long sunny days, clear blue skies, lush vegetation bursting out all over and kids home from school spending those long hours in the yard, in the weeds and in woody areas near home or camp. Ah, July! Ooohh — poison ivy!
Poison ivy and its relatives cause many of the most irritating rashes of summer. Children are very prone to poison ivy — more so than adults — because they are likely to run into the plant in the course of their activities while they are wearing shorts, swimsuits or other summer clothing. If you’ve encountered poison ivy, you know just how irritating it can be.
The rash of poison ivy is a contact dermatitis, which is an inflammation of the skin resulting from direct contact with the plant and its oily resin. Although some people say they are very “allergic” to poison ivy, we all have an equal chance of experiencing a contact dermatitis when exposed to it. Some people do seem to experience a very severe reaction to poison ivy, probably because of a heavy exposure.
The contact dermatitis we call “poison ivy” can be caused by one of three members of the Rhus plant family: poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. Sometimes the plants that cause the poison ivy rash are referred to as “poison weed.”
Poison ivy plants are prevalent all over the United States, except the Southwest, in fields and woods and even back yards. The plant grows as a small bush or vine and consists of branches with “leaves of three,” which are green in summer with a red stem, and red in the fall.
Poison oak grows on the West Coast as an upright shrub. The leaves resemble the leaves of an oak tree, but they are very glossy and occasionally have a fuzzy texture. Poison sumac, which is much less common than poison ivy or poison oak, grows in woody or swampy areas in the Eastern United States. Poison sumac stems bear seven to 13 leaves, arranged in pairs, with a central leaf at the end of the stem.
When children run in the woods or fields, or reach into the weeds to retrieve a baseball, their arms, legs or faces may graze against the edge of a poison weed leaf. This light contact with the oily resin of the plant is enough to cause a red, raised and intensely itchy rash to develop within eight to 48 hours. Often the rash takes the form of a line, or a series of lines, where the leaf edge brushed against the skin.
Children who experience a severe poison ivy reaction may have had more significant exposure to the plant — such as sitting or lying in a patch, or pulling out plants while weeding, for example. Severe facial poison ivy can occur when a child hugs and nuzzles a pet that may have the resin on its fur, or when they are near a campfire that is burning poison ivy leaves.
Poison ivy rashes often become blistery, weeping or oozing sores over the course of a few days. If you are not certain whether a rash is poison ivy, arrange a visit with your pediatrician for a diagnosis and for tips on managing the rash.
Poison weed can spoil a camping trip or family outing. Teach your children to identify the type of poison weed that grows in your region and how to avoid it. Like so many pediatric problems, prevention is the best way to manage poison weed rashes!