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How to Treat Poison Oak this Summer

By Lucas Smith | July 21, 2021

A CHOC Children’s pediatrician offers tips to parents on how to avoid poison oak this summer, and how to care for your child if they come in contact with it.

Contrary to a common misconception, poison oak is a different nuisance than its counterpart, poison ivy. In southern California and throughout the West Coast, outdoor explorers can expect to find poison oak in wooded, brushy areas. In the northeast, you will find poison ivy, and in the southeast, poison sumac.

The best way to avoid poison oak is to stay on a path when outdoors this summer, since poison oak can be hidden in brushy areas. Wear long pants and socks, and avoid off-roading, advises Dr. Katherine Williamson, a CHOC pediatrician.

Poison oak causes a contact dermatitis that is spread onto the skin from the plant oils. A rash and itchy irritation are common side effects of poison oak exposure. These plants cause a delayed reaction, so symptoms may appear anywhere from a few hours to a few days later, potentially creating confusion on their cause. The itching may last for a few days, and the rash may be apparent for up to two weeks. Unfortunately, while nothing will make the red weepy rash go away faster, says Williamson, but topical calamine lotion may provide relief from the intense itching, which can last for a few days. Hydrocortisone cream may also alleviate symptoms, and can be used in conjunction with topical calamine lotion, she adds. For severe cases, oral antihistamines can help. Consult your pediatrician on specific questions related to any medication regimen.

If you think you have been exposed to poison oak, it is important to thoroughly wash anything that may be have been exposed to the plant oils which can spread to the skin if touched again:

  • Wash yourself and the clothes you were wearing at the time of exposure
  • Use soapy water to wash down your shoes, including laces
  • Wash or wipe down coat

It’s important for parents to remember that poison oak dermatitis, although inconvenient, is not contagious, so there is no reason to keep kids home from school if they have poison oak.

If the affected area becomes puffy, painful or at-home remedies do not alleviate itching, consult your pediatrician, as those may be signs of a skin infection. Topical or oral antibiotics may be prescribed. In rare cases, oral steroids may be needed.

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