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  • Redness and blisters
  • Eruption on exposed body surfaces (e.g., hands)
  • Shaped like streaks or patches
  • Extreme itchiness
  • Onset 1 or 2 days after the patient was in a forest or field


Poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac cause the same type of rash and are found throughout the United States. More than 50% of people are sensitive to the oil of these plants.

Expected Course

Poison ivy usually lasts 2 weeks. Treatment reduces the symptoms but doesn't cure the disease. The best approach is prevention.


Cool Soaks. Soak the involved area in cold water or massage it with an ice cube for 20 minutes as often as necessary. Then let it air-dry. This will reduce itching and oozing.

Steroid Creams. If applied early, a steroid cream can reduce the itching. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream applied twice a day for 1 to 2 weeks may help.

The sores should be dried up and no longer itchy in 10 to 14 days. In the meantime, cut your child's fingernails short and encourage your child not to scratch himself or herself.

Benadryl. If itching persists, give Benadryl orally (no prescription needed) every 6 hours as needed.

Contagiousness. The fluid from the sores themselves is not contagious. However, anything that has poison ivy oil or sap on it is contagious for about 1 week. This includes the shoes and clothes the patient last wore into the woods, as well as any pets that may have oil on their fur. Be sure to wash them off with soap and water. The rash begins 1 to 2 days after skin contact.


Learn to recognize these plants. Otherwise, avoid all plants with three large shiny, green leaves. Another clue is the presence of shiny black spots on damaged leaves. (The sap of the plant turns black when exposed to air.)

Wear long pants or socks when walking through woods that may contain poison ivy, poison oak, or poison sumac. If you think your child has had contact with one of these plants wash the exposed areas of skin with any available soap for 5 minutes. Strong laundry soap has no added benefits. Do this as soon as possible, because after 1 hour it is of little value in preventing absorption of the oil.



  • The rash looks infected (yellow pus, spreading redness, red streaks).

During regular hours if

  • The face, eyes, or lips become involved.
  • The itching becomes severe even with treatment.
  • Poison ivy lasts longer than 2 weeks.
  • You have other concerns or questions.

Instructions for Pediatric Patients, 2nd Edition, ©1999 by WB Saunders Company.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, pediatrician and author of Your Child’s Health, Bantam Books, a book for parents.

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