Poison Ivy, Oak or Sumac in Babies

Does your child have a rash after spending time in the woods? It could be poison ivy. We’ve got the scoop on what to do to get rid of the itchies.
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profile picture of Jennifer L.W. Fink
Registered Nurse
March 9, 2020
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What is poison ivy, oak or sumac in toddlers?

Poison ivy, oak and sumac are three wild plants that tend to cause nasty, itchy rashes. The leaves of the plants contain a special oil called urushiol. Up to 85 percent of the population is allergic to urushiol. That’s why most people break out in a red, blistery rash after coming into contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac.

Because the typical poison ivy rash is actually an allergic reaction, previous exposure is required for the body to develop sensitivity to urushiol. Your child might not get a rash the first time he comes into contact with the plant or its oil, but the next time, watch out!

What are the symptoms of poison ivy, oak or sumac exposure in toddlers?

An itchy, angry-looking rash is the primary symptom of poison ivy, oak or sumac exposure. The rash typically appears 12 to 48 hours after exposure and has a blister-like appearance. The blisters may weep fluid and crust over.

Are there any tests for poison ivy, oak or sumac in toddlers?

No tests are necessary. Poison ivy, oak and sumac rashes are diagnosed on the basis of their distinctive appearance — and a history of exposure. If your child develops a red, itchy rash with blisters after playing in the woods or hugging a dog that recently spent time in the woods, it’s probably poison ivy, oak or sumac.

How common is poison ivy, oak or sumac in toddlers?

It depends. Does your family spend a lot of time in the woods? If so, your child is much more likely to contract poison ivy than a kid who spends his time in the city.

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How did my toddler get poison ivy, oak or sumac?

Most likely, he came into direct contact with the leaves of poison ivy, oak or sumac. The plants are somewhat distinctive (“leaves of three, leave them be!”) but are easy to overlook in their natural environment. (See some pics here.)

Your child can also get poison ivy, oak or sumac by touching someone or something that came into contact with the plants’ oils. If your child touches your backpack, for instance, after it brushed against the leaves, he might get a poison ivy rash. Pets can also carry the oils home.

What’s the best way to treat poison ivy, oak or sumac in toddlers?

Wash your child’s skin with soap and water immediately! The soap removes the oil from your child’s skin, which is step number one in controlling the rash.

Wash your child’s clothes and shoes — and anything else that may have come into contact with the plants — thoroughly with soap as well. Otherwise, the oil may linger and cause additional rash outbreaks.

Cool compresses can help ease the itching. So can hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion. “If you have a child who seems to suffer from poison ivy or poison oak every year, then that is a child I’d be quick to start on a topical over-the-counter hydrocortisone right away,” says Alanna Levine, MD, a pediatrician at Orangetown Pediatric Associates in Tappan, New York. Oral antihistamines, like Benadryl, can be used if the itching is really driving your child crazy.

If the rash seems to be getting worse instead of better, or is associated with significant swelling, fever or difficulty breathing, it’s time to see a doctor. “Also, if there is involvement of the face, especially swelling of the eyes, see your doctor. This may require an oral steroid medication,” Levine says.

What can I do to prevent my toddler from getting poison ivy, oak or sumac?

Keep your child away from poison ivy, oak or sumac. That’s easier said than done — especially when you have an active toddler on your hands — but work on teaching your child to stay near you and on clearly marked trails when in the woods. Dress him in long sleeves, pants, socks and shoes when he’s in the woods. Clothing can keep the plants’ oils from coming into contact with the skin.

If you notice poison ivy, oak or sumac on or near your property, be sure to remove it. Just be sure to thoroughly wash your clothing and tools afterward.

What do other moms do when their toddlers have poison ivy, oak or sumac?

“My daughter had [what I think was] poison ivy. My husband had had it earlier but it actually can’t be spread that easily. Do watch out for pets, though. The oil can stick to their coats and they will spread it everywhere. If you have a dog or cat, I would wash it pronto!”

Are there any other resources for poison ivy, oak or sumac in toddlers?

The Bump expert: Alanna Levine, MD, pediatrician at Orangetown Pediatric Associates in Tappan, New York

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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