Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


Keeping Your Kids Healthy This Summer: Poison Ivy

Everything You Need To Know

Summer is here. Your kids are likely to be spending much more time outside (as they should be!)...but with that, comes a few potential pitfalls.

Poison ivy being one.

I remember, growing up in Ontario, having a serious dread of poison ivy. Every other neighbourhood kid had some horror story to gleefully share about their second cousin who had rolled around in poison ivy wearing only their swimsuit and subsequently couldn’t move for weeks...you know, you probably heard those stories too.

Worried your kids might get poison ivy? Here’s what you need to know:

Poison ivy is a plant that grows all over North America, in the woods mostly, but also in fields and clearings. It can be found in every province except Newfoundland. Poison ivy’s partner in crime, poison oak, is also in Canada—but only in one province: my adopted home, British Columbia.  

How do you get poison ivy?

There are two ways your kids can get a rash from poison ivy: through direct contact (when any part of the plant touches or brushes their skin directly) or indirect contact (when they touch clothing, tools, pets, or other objects that have had direct contact with poison ivy). Yes, folks, poison ivy resin can stick to surfaces and objects for a long time. And if you touch those objects, voila, poison ivy for you. In hot, humid conditions the resin becomes inactive after a week; in dry conditions it can stay active for a year or more. It’s important to note that poison ivy is not contagious, however—your kid won’t get it from somebody else’s kid. Not like head lice. Or chicken pox. Or Strep throat. (...jeez, these kids are filthy little things aren’t they? I joke. Sort of.)

Also? Not everyone reacts to poison ivy.

Technically, a poison ivy rash is a form of allergic contact dermatitis—and only 85% of us are allergic. Meaning, 15% of us would walk away from a semi-naked tumble in poison ivy unscathed. The plant resin that causes the reaction is called uroshiol (it’s also the offending agent in poison oak and poison sumac). People vary in their degree of sensitivity to uroshiol, and many adults become less sensitive over time.

How do you prevent your kids from getting poison ivy?

Cover their arms and legs, if possible, especially if playing in areas known to harbour poison ivy. Wash anything that might have contacted poison ivy before touching it. Teach your kids how to recognize poison ivy (check the photo above). Remember: “leaflets three, let them be.”

What are the symptoms of poison ivy?

Here’s a pic of a classic rash.

Red streaks or patches are typical. Symptoms include itching, a burning sensation, swelling, and blisters that weep and crust over. It doesn’t sound nice, granted, but typically it all resolves after 1-2 weeks.

What do you need to do?

  • as soon as possible after contact, wash the area thoroughly with lukewarm water and mild soap. If you're really quick, you can prevent the rash from occurring.
  • wash all items that might have contacted the poison ivy—clothes, shoes, socks, toys, pets, tools...everything.
  • apply cool compresses to the affected areas of skin.
  • try 1% hydrocortisone cream on the rash, to ease itching and inflammation.
  • alternatively, calamine lotion can be soothing.
  • be liberal with cool baths and showers.
  • give that kid a colloidal oatmeal bath—an old-fashioned but effective remedy.
  • for severe itchiness, give oral antihistamines (like Benadryl), especially at night if sleep is affected.

When should you see your doctor?

If your kid develops a fever.

If the rash involves sensitive areas like lips, eyes, throat, or genitals.

If there’s severe blistering or swelling.

If the skin becomes infected (i.e., There’s thick, yellowish pus, or redness and swelling that’s extending/worsening/becoming painful).

If the rash lasts longer than 3 weeks.


But don’t get freaked out, all those complications are quite rare. Take home message: poison ivy is no picnic, but there's lots you can do to treat it...so don’t let the fear of poison ivy stop your family from getting out there and having fun.

Survived a recent bout of poison ivy in your house? Good for you! Time to treat yourself to this. Or maybe this.