Help Your Kids Outsmart Poison Ivy at Camp
Tips on how to detect and protect against poison ivy
Attention parents of summer campers! The start of camp is right around the corner. You've selected the perfect camp and now it's time to make sure your child heads off well prepared. While packing lists are filled with excellent information, there is a natural nuisance that sometimes gets overlooked in first aid planning yet often intrudes upon
campers' outdoor enjoyment: poison ivy.
Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac belong to a family of plants that produce one of the most common allergic reactions in the United States. The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that anywhere from 10 to 50 million people are affected each year.
The allergic reaction is also known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis. Urushiol is an oil-based allergen found in the sap of poison ivy, oak and sumac plants. When people come in contact with the oil, it often adheres to the skin within minutes to a couple of hours, producing the telltale allergic responses of itching, swelling, rashes and oozing blisters. Reactions can result from direct contact with broken leaves or stems of the plants, indirect contact by touching something that has urushiol on it, such as socks or bed linens, or through airborne exposure to burning plants.
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What It Looks Like
There is no simple way to describe what poison ivy, oak and sumac look like. The plants grow almost everywhere in the United States, except Hawaii, Alaska and some desert areas of the Southwest. In addition, the plants do not typically grow in elevations above 5,000 feet. The prevalence and structure of each plant vary by region and season. However, there are some general features specific to each plant noted below that may help your kids avoid a run-in:
Poison ivy is the most common and widespread plant of the three. Its leaves are characterized by three or five serrated-edge, pointed leaflets and assume bright colors in the fall. Poison ivy grows as a vine or free-standing plant in the East, Midwest and South and as a shrub in the far northern and western United States.
Poison oak has three leaves and grows as a shrub in the East and the West, where it is most prevalent. The plant produces whitish flowers from August to November that dry and can remain for months. Its leaves also form bright colors during the fall season.
Poison sumac has seven to 13 staggered leaflets with one on the tip of the plant. It grows as a shrub or small tree and is found mainly in the Eastern United States, primarily in peat bogs and swamps.
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The Importance of Preparation
Everyone is well-acquainted with the advice to avoid the plants. Sometimes, that is easier said than done, particularly when dealing with adventuresome children. Still, there are steps that can be taken to minimize poison ivy's possible effects on your children's outdoor discovery. Here are a few key recommendations:
Educate your kids on what the plants look like and encourage them to avoid them. Whenever possible, advise them to wear long clothing when heading out into areas where there may be poison ivy, oak or sumac.
Encourage them to apply a poison ivy/oak barrier cream to exposed areas of the body before heading outdoors to decrease risk of allergic outbreaks.
Instruct them to wash all exposed areas thoroughly upon returning to camp, taking special care to remove clothing, which can often be a prime carrier of urushiol oil. It is recommended that cleansers specially designed to remove urushiol are used to further reduce the chance of allergic reaction.
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Even careful children can fall victim to poison ivy reactions. After a breakout occurs, the attending nurse can choose from a host of over-the-counter treatments, such as calamine lotion or hydrocortisone, which temporarily suppress the itch but do not remove urushiol. For severe cases in which the rash covers more than 10% of the body, doctor-prescribed steroids are the best solution.
Many mild-to-moderate cases of poison ivy can be successfully treated with a special, new class of post-symptomatic washes that are specifically formulated to remove urushiol oil after bonding to relieve itching and irritation. These washes are the first treatments that target the source of poison ivy allergic reactions by safely and effectively removing urushiol, the root cause.
Common Myths About Poison Ivy, Oak and Sumac
1. Poison ivy rash is contagious.
Poison ivy, oak and sumac rash is not contagious. It is a reaction to urushiol and cannot pass from person to person after the urushiol binds.
2. Scratching poison ivy blisters will spread the rash.
The fluid in the blisters will not spread the rash, because urushiol is not contained in that fluid. However, scratching blisters can cause scarring or an infection from bacteria underneath fingernails.
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3. After the first poison ivy outbreak, people become immune to other outbreaks.
Although not everyone reacts to poison ivy upon first or subsequent exposures, people generally become more sensitized with each exposure and may react more severely. It is estimated that 85% of the population is allergic to these plants.
4. Dead poison ivy plants are no longer toxic.
Urushiol can remain active, even in dead plants, for up to five years. Never burn these plants, as airborne urushiol can be deadly.
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