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Beware poison ivy


Poison ivy is an Asian and North American flowering plant known for causing contact dermatitis—itchy, oozing, blistering, irritating, and sometimes painful rashes in most people who touch it. The irritant is a chemical called urushiol, a clear, oily compound in the plant’s sap.


Identifying poison ivy
Learn to identify poison ivy (and similarly irritating poison oak and sumac) and look for it during daily playground safety checks. Note that the plant’s almond-shaped leaves change in color from light green to dark as the plant matures during the summer months. In early spring and late fall, however, the color can range from green to red, orange, and yellow. The mature leaves are 1- to 3-inches long, with smooth edges and surface. Leaflet clusters (in groups of three) alternate on the vine; the plant does not have thorns.

Unfortunately, the urushiol is present on the plant’s leaves, stem, and roots. The sap can remain active for several years so avoid handling dead leaves and vines.

Look for pictures of poison ivy that are taken in your locale to help avoid confusing the plant with others that have similar features like Virginia creeper (with serrated leaf edges), box elder (with opposite rather than alternating leaves), and blackberries (with thorns on the stems).


Identifying a poison ivy rash
Unlike poisonous plants that harm children when ingested, poison ivy irritates the skin. Few people are immune to the effects of urushiol, and most develop increasingly severe rashes with repeated exposure. In extreme cases, the allergic reaction can progress to anaphylaxis with swelling, shortness of breath, low blood pressure, and cardiac arrest.

A poison ivy plant’s urushiol-rich sap can contaminate clothing, shoes, and skin. Urushiol can bind on contact and remains active until deliberately eradicated. On the skin it causes uncolored or reddish bumps and then blistering. Often a rash occurs when contaminated clothing is removed, brushing the oil onto the skin. Similarly, the irritant can spread from a pet to under fingernails, to clothing, furniture, counters, and then to the skin.

Contact with urushiol causes a rash, so anyone can pick it up from anything that’s been in contact with the oil—a pet’s fur or a ball that has bumped into a plant. The blister fluid is not contagious and cannot spread the rash. The lines of blisters aren’t spread by scratching but follow the path the vine brushed against the skin or the oil was spread.

Blisters can develop within hours or may take as long as five days to appear after contact. After a few days the rash becomes crusty and can take as long as three weeks to heal completely.


Treating poison ivy
Immediate washing with soap and cool water may help prevent reactions. Remember, parents must give written approval for any medical treatment, including standard over-the-counter medications, like Calamine lotion, oatmeal baths, topical antihistamines, and baking soda pastes that can help relieve itching. You can, however, offer cold compresses that are both soothing and distracting.


Guidelines for programs
Keep play areas poison-ivy free. Eradication typically requires systemic chemical herbicides that are toxic. Never burn poison ivy. The smoke can impact the skin, eyes, and lungs.
Be alert to the plant on neighborhood walks and field trips.
Insist that children wash hands thoroughly after all outdoor play.
Help children resist scratching the rash; distraction is effective.
Encourage parents to contact medical support if one of the following occurs:

• The rash affects the eyes, mouth, or genitals.

• The blisters ooze pus.

• The child develops a fever greater than 100 °F.

• The rash doesn’t heal within three weeks.