Although poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are often thought of as summertime hazards, these plants are also common throughout the fall season. Although these plants may look different, they produce the same reaction in susceptible people.
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are common causes of seasonal, allergic contact dermatitis (rash). As many as seven out of every ten people has a reaction after an exposure to these plants. This reaction may range from mild, localized redness and itching to severe blisters and swelling over the entire body. If your child is exposed, the severity of his symptoms will depend his degree of sensitivity, the amount of contact he had with the plant and the areas of skin involved.
The irritant in all species of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac is an oily resin known as toxicodendrol. This oily resin is found in the leaves, stems, roots and berries of all of these plants. When this resin comes in contact with skin or fingernails, it clings there and becomes tightly bound within minutes. This means that the most important thing to do is to make sure your child washes all areas of his body that were exposed to poison ivy, oak or sumac with soap and water immediately. Even a small delay gives the resin all the time it needs to become tightly bound to the skin and cause a reaction.
Make sure your child takes special care to clean under the fingernails. Otherwise, any oily resin there could spread to the eyes, genitals or other body parts or even to friends and family members. Contrary to popular belief, the fluid in the blisters does not spread the rash. It is the oily plant resin that is the culprit. The resin can remain active for long periods of time on contaminated clothing, shoes, sports or hunting equipment, camping gear, garden and yard tools and even the family pet. Repeated washing with commercial detergents is recommended as well as repeated baths if the family pet is involved. Contaminated clothing, in particular, should be laundered separately several times before wearing because recontamination could occur if your child were to wear these clothes before all traces of resin were removed.
Oral and/or topical steroids are usually used to treat allergic reactions from these plants. These medications are best prescribed by a physician. Over-the-counter steroid creams, such as hydrocortisone, are low in potency and may not be effective in moderate to severe cases. In addition to oral or topical steroids, your physician may also recommend antihistamines to relieve itching, cool compreses to reduce the pain and swelling and good wound care practices to prevent infection.
Never attempt to destroy poisonous plants or shrubs in your backyard by burning them. Inhaling the smoke produced by burning these plants can cause a life-threatening reaction.
Removing by digging or pulling these plants is also ineffective and dangerous. The poisonous resin could contaminate the skin, yard tools and clothing of the individual trying to dig them out. Any plant material remaining underground after digging or pulling could grow into a whole new plant. For removal of poison ivy, oak or sumac plants, use only commercial herbicides intended for these plants and follow the manufacturers' directions carefully.
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