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Poison Ivy and Oak, Eczema and Pink Eye

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Poison Ivy and Oak

forestPoison Ivy and Poison Oak are low growing plants which are unique in that they exude an oily sap which is extremely irritating to skin. About half of the children who come in contact with poison ivy or poison oak will have an allergic reaction to the plant's sap. This allergic reaction causes itching, burning, and red, swollen blisters that burst, leak fluid, and scab over. Poison ivy and oak reactions aren't contagious, but any sap left on someone's clothing or can cause skin reactions for up to a year. It takes several days for a rash to appear after exposure.

Preventing exposure to poison ivy or poison oak in the first place is preferable to treating the reaction after the fact. Children should be taught to identify and avoid poison ivy (red stems and shiny green leaves in bunches of three, that turn from green in the summer to red in the fall) and poison oak (shiny green leaves that also grow in bunches of three). Many children learn the saying "Leaves of three, let it be" as a memory cue to help them remember which plants to avoid. Poison ivy and oak occur commonly in wooded areas or forests. Parents can control the growth of these plants in their own yards or playgrounds by promptly (and carefully!) removing any noticeable plants.

Children who come in contact with the plants should take steps to remove the irritating sap from their skin as soon as possible. A good way to do this is with a skin cleanser such as Tecnu®, Xanfel® or equivalent generic products specifically formulated to remove urushiol (the plant oil) from skin. Washing with soap and hot water may not always remove the oil, which may then spread to irritate other body parts. Any clothing that may have been exposed to plant oils should be laundered in hot water so as to remove any residual sap.

Once formed, poison ivy rash can be treated by soaking the affected area in cool water or rubbing it for 10 to 20 minutes with an ice cube. Over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams and Calamine lotions can also alleviate some itchiness and pain. As is also the case with bug bites, scratching should be discouraged. In general, the rash will heal in several weeks.

Parents should call the doctor or visit their local urgent care center if poison ivy/oak rash appears on the groin or face, if there are possible signs of infection (such as fever), redness or swelling beyond the rash, or if the child is extremely uncomfortable.


Eczema is a chronic, non-contagious skin condition of unknown origin. Eczema flare-ups can cause red, itchy rashes in the folds of the skin that tend to ooze, crack, and become scaly if scratched. Eventually, over time, the affected skin will thicken and harden.

The family doctor or pediatrician should be consulted for treating eczema. Largely, doctors will recommend a preventative strategy such as moisturizing the skin twice daily with a lubricating lotion; wearing soft clothes made out of cotton and avoiding itchy cloths like wool; using soothing soaps; avoiding bubble baths and any unnecessary cosmetics and chemicals; and avoiding extreme conditions like wind, cold, and heat.

If a flare-up does occur, the doctor may recommend using a hydrocortisone cream, either over-the-counter or prescription, as well as an antihistamine. Scratching should be discouraged, as it can promote infection and actually aggravate the condition. Most of the time, eczema becomes less of a problem as children get older. However, some people develop eczema later in life, or continue to experience it into adulthood.

Pink Eye

The formal name for pink eye is conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis is an eye condition in which one or both eyes become bright pink and produce a yellow-green discharge that can form a crust that mats the eyes closed, especially in the morning. This condition can cause an itchy burning sensation, or pain in the eyes, and/or cause light sensitivity. Normally, a bacterial or viral infection causes pink eye, but sometimes allergies or another irritation can also cause the condition.

Conjunctivitis is highly contagious. Most schools will not allow children displaying symptoms of conjunctivitis to attend classes, and will instead send them home until such time as they are cleared by a doctor. To limit the spread of conjunctivitis, affected children should not share towels, washcloths, or bed linens with others. As well, they should avoid touching their eyes, and make sure to wash their hands often to discourage spread of the infection.

Viral pink eye will clear on its own. However, doctors may prescribe antibiotic drops or salves when pink eye is caused by a bacterial infection. Parents should make sure that children follow all treatment instructions as provided by their doctor, and take all medications exactly as prescribed.