“Leaves of three, let it be.” For generations we’ve heard this regarding poison ivy, and guess what? It’s true!
Due to the fact that poison ivy is so common — it’s in every U.S. state except Alaska, Hawaii and parts of the West Coast — we at Westchester Health Pediatrics feel it’s important at this time of year to let our patients and parents know how to recognize it and avoid it.
Like a chameleon, poison ivy changes color with the seasons
Just when you think you know how to identify, it changes. Its leaves change colors throughout the year. Depending on the season, its leaves are:
- Reddish in the spring
- Green in the summer
- Yellow, orange or red in the fall
In addition, with some types of poison ivy, the leaves have notched edges. With others, the edges are smooth. It can grow as a bush or vine, and it sometimes has white berries.
6 important facts to know about poison ivy
Fact #1: Poison ivy isn’t really poisonous.
It contains a sticky, long-lasting oil called urushiol that causes an itchy, blistering rash after it touches your skin. Even slight contact, such as brushing up against the leaves, exposes your skin to the oil.
Fact #2: Never burn poison ivy.
Particles of urushiol remain in the fire’s smoke and can severely aggravate your eyes, nose and respiratory tract, as well as your skin. Instead of burning it to get rid of it, completely cover yourself with clothing and dig out the plant, getting as much of the root as possible. Put it in a plastic trash bag and throw it away. Alternatively, a plant killer may work on poison ivy but be sure to read the label carefully and use it at the right time of the year. Remember: Urushiol remains active, even on dead plants.
Fact #3: Urushiol adheres to your skin within minutes.
If you know you’ve come into contact with poison ivy, wash the area with lukewarm water and soap ASAP. If there’s no water, rubbing alcohol or alcohol wipes can remove it. Keep the area cool, dry and clean. Thoroughly wash your clothes and clean your boots or shoes. Also, hose down any garden tools that might have touched the plant.
Fact #4: Urushiol can cling to your dog or cat’s fur and rub off on you.
If your pet explores areas where poison ivy is growing and then rubs against your skin, you can definitely have a reaction. To avoid this, bathe your pet with soap and cool water wearing gloves, then locate the poison ivy plants your pet is coming in contact with and remove them.
Fact #5: See your doctor if a rash develops close to your eyes or is widespread over your body.
There are prescription medications you can take by mouth that will help with swelling and itching. If you experience a severe reaction in addition to a rash, such as nausea, fever, fainting, shortness of breath, extreme soreness at the rash site or swollen lymph nodes, call 911 or get to an emergency room immediately.
Fact #6: Poison Ivy is not contagious.
Once you have washed the oils off of your skin, the rash itself is not contagious. It may continue to spread due to varying amounts of exposure on different areas of the body, but touching the rash does not cause it to spread.
Common sense ways to avoid poison ivy
- Steer clear of areas where you know it grows.
- If you know you will be walking/hiking in areas where poison ivy is present, cover up with closed shoes, socks, long pants, long sleeves and gloves.
- Wash in hot water any clothing that comes in contact with poison ivy as soon as possible.
- If you do get exposed, wash your skin with soap and warm water right away to get the plant’s oils off your skin.
- Scrub under your fingernails. You can spread poison ivy to other parts of your body if the oil is on your fingers.
- Wash gardening tools and other outdoor items with soap and water that may have come in contact with the plant. Unfortunately, oil from poison ivy can remain potent for as long as 5 years.
If your child is having a reaction to poison ivy, please come see us
If your child has contracted a rash from poison ivy that is not going away or is getting worse, please make an appointment with Westchester Health Pediatrics to see one of our pediatricians. Together, we’ll determine the best course of treatment so your child can start feeling better soon.