Soothing the itch of poison ivy

poisonivyRecently we’ve had a parade of itchy children troop through our office.  The culprit: poison ivy.

Myth buster: Fortunately, poison ivy is NOT contagious. You can catch poison ivy ONLY from the plant, not from another person.

Also, contrary to popular belief, you can not spread poison ivy on yourself through scratching.  However, where  the poison (oil) has touched  your skin, your skin can show a delayed reaction- sometimes up to two weeks later.  Different  areas of skin can react at different times, thus giving the illusion of a spreading rash.

Some home remedies for the itch :

  • Hopping into the shower and rinsing off within fifteen minutes of exposure can curtail the reaction.  Warning, a bath immediately after exposure may cause the oils to simply swirl around the bathtub and touch new places on your child.
  • Hydrocortisone 1%.  This is a mild topical steroid which decreases inflammation.  I suggest the ointment- more staying power and unlike the cream will not sting on open areas, use up to four times a day
  • Calamine lotion – a.k.a. the pink stuff. this is an active ingredient in many of the combination creams.  Apply as many times as you like.
  • Diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl)- take orally up to every six hours. If this makes your child too sleepy, once a day Cetirizine (brand name Zyrtec) also has very good anti itch properties.
  • Oatmeal baths – Crush oatmeal, place in old hosiery, tie it off and float in the bathtub- this will prevent oat meal from clogging up your bath tub.
  • Do not use alcohol or bleach- these items will irritate the rash more than help

The biggest worry with poison ivy rashes is not the itch, but the chance of super-infection.  With each scratch, your child is possibly introducing  infection into an open wound.  Unfortunately, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between an allergic reaction to poison ivy and an infection.  Both are red, both can be warm, both can be swollen.  However, a hallmark of infection is tenderness- if there is pain associated with a poison ivy rash, think infection.  A hallmark of an allergic reaction is itchiness- if there is itchiness associated with a rash, think allergic reaction.  Because it usually takes time for an infection to “settle in,” an infection will not occur immediately after an exposure.  Infection usually occurs on the 2nd or 3rd days.  If you have any concerns take your child to her doctor.

Generally, any poison ivy rash which is in the area of the eye or genitals (difficult to apply topical remedies), appears infected, or is just plain making your child miserable needs medical attention.

When all else fails, comfort yourself with this statistic: up to 85% of people are allergic to poison ivy.  If misery loves company, your child certainly has company.

Naline Lai, MD and Julie Kardos, MD

2012 Two Peds in a Pod®

photo updated 6/03/12

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6 Comments

  • Reply Pete Yodis August 2, 2009 at 3:55 am

    I have read that an Epsom Salt bath is effective for relieving itching from poison ivy. Any thoughts on this?

  • Reply Naline Lai MD August 3, 2009 at 2:58 am

    I love Epsom Salt for soaking pus filled infections i.e. red, ugly ingrown toe nails. However, I think in the case of poison ivy, Epson Salts may in the long run irritate rather than sooth the skin- think of how salty sweat stings sunburnt skin.

  • Reply Marilyn Lebovitz May 20, 2010 at 1:26 am

    Who knew that it couldn’t be spread? Is that true of poison sumac too?

  • Reply Two Peds in a Pod May 20, 2010 at 2:46 am

    Luckily, yes!

  • Reply When children should go home from child care centers for illness-the surprising answers | Two Peds in a Pod® March 20, 2015 at 11:50 pm

    […] Poison ivy rash is not contagious to other people. The reason to exclude a child from school is if the itch from poison ivy makes her too miserable to participate in class activities. Also some children can scratch their way to a skin infection which IS contagious. So the child with poison ivy who develops a painful infected skin area that cannot be completely covered should go home from school. Read more about poison ivy here. […]

  • Reply Kids with “pink eye” CAN attend daycare, and other updated school exclusion recommendations – Two Peds in a Pod® March 11, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    […] Poison ivy rash is not contagious to other people. The rash of poison ivy is an allergic reaction/irritation from wherever the oil of a poison plant touched the skin. The ONLY way to “catch” poison ivy is from the poison ivy plant itself. But if the itch from poison ivy makes a child too miserable to participate in class activities, she may need to go  home. Read more about poison ivy here. […]

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