From Freaked Out to Feeling Better: 4 Common Summer Rashes Kids Get and What To Do
Has this ever happened to you?
You’re on vacation with your kids and you’re all having the time of your life traipsing about in the woods. After the kids (finally!) collapse in bed, you and your husband are having a glass of wine and spending some much needed down-time together, reflecting on your wonderful life or…ahem…
Then you hear it.
An angry, irritable screech jarring you from your buzzy reverie.
“Moooommmm!?! I’m itcheeeee!!!”
You, bewildered and off-guard, see your 10-year old daughter frantically scratching her lower leg, and looking to you for relief. You see a red, bumpy, blistered, oozing rash that looks really gross and painful.
What are you going to do to make it all better?
Frantic thoughts dissolve your buzz now instantly-alert mind:
EW! What is it? Where did she get it? Will my other kids get it? Is it serious? What do I do? Who do I call? It’s 11 at night! In the middle of nowhere!
You suspect poison ivy (but you’re not Totally Sure! and even though you showed them what poison ivy looks like and to leave it alone!) because you had it as a kid but you can’t remember what Mom did to make it better.
You feel so bad for her-the pain, maddening itch, ugly red oozing rash, the yucky misery of it all. You just want her to feel better but inside you’re yelling-Mom! Help!
Then this sobering thought: I’M the Mom. She needs ME to help her feel better.
And this: What am I gonna do to make this better?
You remember the little box of bandaids you threw into the car at the last minute, wishing you had packed more. Like, Something That Will Take Care Of THIS-whatever IT is.
We’ve all been caught off-guard by our kids’ unscheduled crises. You told yourself you’d be better prepared Next Time.
But, you know. Life.
It doesn’t have to be like this-with a little knowledge about what the rashes look like (yes, there will be pictures!) and some simple prep, you can put the collar on the next summer rash that rears its ugly red head.
You can be confident in knowing what you’re dealing with and what to do to make her a happy camper again.
Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac aka Urushiol sensitivity aka allergic contact dermatitis
So- the rash-how do you tell if it’s poison ivy?
What you’ll see on the skin-usually within 12–72 hours of contact: redness of the skin, swelling, red bumps that can turn into blisters, clusters of small blisters, oozing of blisters, blisters in lines
What she’s feeling: itching, burning, pain, tenderness, a strong urge to scratch
Some scary facts about poison ivy
You can get the rash even if you didn’t touch any poison ivy since the oil can stick to pet fur, tools, clothing, and other objects and remain active for up to 20 years!
Important! Urushiol can even be inhaled when the plant containing it is burned, which can be particularly dangerous-get medical attention if this happens!
It doesn’t take much urushiol to cause a reaction: an amount weighing less than a grain of table salt will cause 80–90% of adults to react.
While there is no “cure” for poison ivy rash-you must let the reaction run its course- there’s good news, Mom!
You can minimize the extent, pain, and discomfort.
What’s really causing the rash (warning- a little technical!)
The rash is caused by the oil urushiol (from a Japanese word for the lacquer tree, urushi) in the plant.
When first absorbed by your skin, it causes sensitization by getting oxidized and reacting with your skin proteins to form a “hapten adduct”. This produces a type of T-Cell which, when you get exposed a second time, activates the T-Cells, triggering a “Type IV” immune reaction that causes your body to attack it’s own skin cells.
It is this reaction which causes the redness, swelling and blisters.
Contrary to popular belief, the blisters are not contagious and do not contain urushiol. They contain a clear serous fluid made by your body.
Most people don’t react the first time they are exposed to urushiol (see the NIOSH video below to find out why). So, if your kid (like my nephew) thinks he’s “immune” to it because he got into it and “nothing happened”, wrong-O. His immune system is just gearing up for the next time urushiol invades its territory.
Similar to when you click “buy now” on a website, a sequence of events is set in motion: your item is pulled from a shelf, packed, and delivered to your doorstep. Likewise, in the poison ivy reaction, the poison ivy “clicked” your child’s skin, causing a sequence of reactions in her immune system, resulting in the rash “showing up” on her skin- but with none of the joy a package brings.
So-now that you’ve got some basic facts about poison ivy under your belt, what should you do?
Your 3 treatment goals should be:
- Damage control!
Get the urushiol off the skin ASAP to keep it from spreading and causing further damage
The best way to do this is with friction, soap and water. Use a washcloth to scrub the area well with soap or a degreasing hand-dishwashing liquid and cool water, rinsing frequently.
Dr. Jim Brauker, a biomedical scientist who studied skin inflammation says urushiol sticks to skin like automotive grease and is just as hard to get off. He says to get the oil off within 2–8 hours, if possible.
Be sure to also wash any skin where the area might have touched. My recent poison ivy rash transferred from above the crook of my elbow to below it-while I was sleeping-since my arm was bent and the urushiol transferred before I even knew I had poison ivy on me, doubling my misery!
2. How to calm the inflammation and control the itch
After drying the rash, mix some baking soda and witch hazel into a thin paste and dab it on gently. It might sting as it dries, but it should stop the itching and help cool and calm the area fairly quickly. I found this controlled my itching for several hours.
The paste will flake a little after it dries, depending on how thickly you applied it. You can apply a very loose cover (not an adhesive bandage, which could further irritate the area) to allow air to circulate and to catch any flakes.
When the itching starts back up, rinse the area gently, pat dry, and reapply the baking soda/witch hazel paste.
Try to keep her from scratching-yes, it feels better, but it can lead to an infection and scarring.
You can also try an oatmeal, baking soda, or cornstarch bath in warm-but not hot water- to help soothe the skin.
Cool compresses with apple cider vinegar have also been known to help soothe the itch.
Limit exposure of the area to sun to avoid aggravating the rash.
4. Once the rash is dried up, use this to promote skin healing and regeneration
After my poison ivy rash dried up, it was time to start healing the damage it caused. I used an herbal salve made with calendula, comfrey, chickweed, plantain, and yarrow, applying it several times a day.
This quick video from NIOSH (the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) explains what’s going on in your body when you get poison ivy and what actually causes the rash:
Don’t eat this when you have poison ivy!
There are a few edible plants that contain the culprit chemical urushiol. I found out the hard way that my favorite food is one of them!
While recovering from the poison ivy rash on my arm, I decided to eat an Ataulfo mango. After making a hedgehog cut, I decided to gnaw the cubes off the skin instead of daintily slicing them off.
A few minutes after slurping them down, I noticed my throat felt a little prickly and tight. As the minutes passed it got worse and then my lips felt swollen and sore! Whaaaat was going on???!!
Was it the mango? I hadn’t eaten anything else for hours.
I was freaked out, home alone, and wondering if my throat was going to close off leaving me to die of asphyxiation.
After frantically gargling water and washing my lips off, and my throat feeling tighter, I searched online for “Why is my throat sore after eating a mango?!”
A lot of results popped up! Looks like I wasn’t the first one to have a reaction to mangoes-especially while suffering from poison ivy!
Apparently, mangoes are in the same botanical family-Anacardiaceae- as poison ivy. Mangoes contain urushiol in the skin and sap, and can cause a reaction to those sensitive to the oil. People can be more sensitive to urushiol in food when they have a poison ivy/oak/sumac rash.
The sore throat and itchy lips gradually went away and I didn’t end up calling 911. My rash cleared up a couple of months ago but I still won’t touch a mango.
What to do when if it’s not getting better
If this is the first time your child has been exposed to poison ivy, see a doctor if the affected area is severe, extensive, or continues to swell over many days; on the mouth, genitals, or eyes; has blisters filled with or oozing pus; is accompanied by a fever over 100 F; and doesn’t heal or improve significantly in a few weeks.
Your doctor may prescribe a corticosteroid, which does have side-effects you should be aware of.
Put these things in Your First Aid Kit:
- Baking Soda-one box
- Cornstarch-one box
- Soap (any soap that is a good degreaser, or a small container of Dawn-type dishwasing soap)
- Washcloths-2 or 3 (that you don’t mind throwing away)
- Witch Hazel extract-I would use Thayer’s Witch Hazel with Aloe Vera, Original Astringent, which is not distilled. so it still has the tannins which produce the astringent effect you want. Aloe vera is, of course, cooling and soothing.
- Oatmeal -2 or 3 cups
- Botanical healing salve made with comfrey, plantain, calendula, and yarrow-2 oz. tin
- Sock or panty hose leg
- Calamine lotion
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- Alcohol wipes useful to help remove the urushiol
- A nail brush for removing oil from under the fingernails
Heat Rash aka sweat rash, prickly heat, miliaria rubra
Heat rash, most common in overdressed infants, is not considered dangerous, but can be quite uncomfortable and occurs in hot and humid conditions. It happens when blocked sweat glands cause the sweat to leak into surrounding tissues, which causes a tingling, itchy, prickly sensation.
It can occur after a period of prolonged bed rest or intense physical activity.
Newborns have immature sweat ducts which are prone to breaking and leaking, especially if he’s been overdressed, has a fever, or been in an incubator.
What the rash looks like
Heat rash is classed based on the depth of the blocked sweat ducts, and can range from tiny, superficial blisters to deep, red bumps.
In infants, the diffuse red rash usually occurs on the chest, neck and shoulders, but can also appear in skin folds at the elbow, knee, or groin.
How she’ll feel/act
Your baby may act fussy and cry.
Your child may complain of feeling hot and having itchy, prickly, or tingly skin.
Less is more-what to do
The rash should clear up quickly once the skin is cooled down.
According to the late pediatrician Dr. Robert S. Mendelsohn, in his book “How to Raise a Healthy Child…In Spite of Your Doctor”, heat rash in babies is most often caused by overdressing by parents overly concerned about “keeping the baby warm”. He says babies “don’t have to be kept any warmer than adults and will suffer no ill effects in normal room temperature if they wear nothing but a diaper or nothing at all.”
Remove excess or all clothing, exposing as much skin to the air as possible. Apply plain Calamine lotion. Give a cool cornstarch bath or apply a cool compress. Let the skin air-dry.
Keep the area cool and dry. Dress your child in cool, lightweight clothing that can wick away moisture easily.
When to call the doctor
If the rash is severe, has streaks or is bright red, doesn’t go away in a few days, or an infection develops in the area of the rash
It the rash showed up soon after starting a new medication or antibiotic
If fever or illness is present.
Put This in Your First Aid Kit
Swimmer’s Itch aka duck itch, or Cercarial Dermatitis
In the middle of the night, after a fun wade in the lake this morning, you notice a rash on your 4-year old son’s lower leg with little red pimples that he’s been fervently scratching. “It’s itchy, Mama!”
You noticed him rubbing his leg earlier in the day but didn’t see anything concerning on his skin. But now you do. Is it serious, you wonder?
Swimmer’s Itch is an allergic reaction to the larva of a parasite that lives in the bloodstream of certain infected waterfowl and mammals who then release the parasite’s eggs in their feces into the water. The larva hatch in water and then infect snails which then release a different larva into salt or fresh waters, usually near the shoreline.
Humans aren’t the preferred host, and so although the larvae can burrow into our skin, they can’t develop in us and they soon die-which is good news! But they can make us pretty itchy with a rash before they do!
Children are more at risk for infection since the larvae are found more at the water’s edge where they are likely to play.
Make sure your child dries off soon after playing in the water to minimize exposure.
What the rash looks like
Swimmer’s Itch on leg. Image from https://healthh.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/swimmers-itch-pictures.jpg
Within 12 hours of exposure: little red pimples which can turn into blisters, on areas not usually covered by a swimsuit.
What he feels
Itching, burning, and tingling of the skin for a week or more but gradually going away.
How to make him feel better
Good news! Although the rash itself will clear up on its own in a few days, you can control the itch with topical treatments (similar to what you would do for poison ivy) such as topical Calamine Lotion, oatmeal, baking soda, or Epsom salt baths, cool compresses, baking soda paste, or an OTC anti-itch cream.
You can’t get it from…
Someone with the rash, or in well-maintained and chlorinated pools which can’t harbor the snails which carry the parasite.
When to see the doctor
Swimmer’s Itch doesn’t usually need a doctor’s attention, but if there’s severe itching, or scratching has produced a bacterial skin infection (if you see redness, swelling, tenderness, or pus) see a healthcare provider.
Put This in Your First Aid Kit
Topical anti-itch cream
Sandworms aka Cutaneous Larva Migrans (literally larva migrating throughout your skin) aka hookworm (usually Ancylostoma spp.)
Did you hear about this gross story that made the news recently? Teens on a mission trip buried their friend Michael Dumas up to his neck in the sand at Pompano Beach in Florida.
He later developed intense itching, pain, and a weird rash on his foot. A trip to the doctor revealed a parasite had burrowed through his skin and was now worming its way (sorry!) around his foot.
His Mom posted the pics on her Facebook page and they look horrifying! Some of his friends were also infected.
The parasite he picked up was probably a canine hookworm- from sand infested with infected animal (probably dog) feces- which causes a painful, red, meandering rash made by the burrowing larva. The larva lacks the enzymes necessary to penetrate the skin’s basement membrane and become a systemic infection, and so is doomed to wander the superficial layers of the skin.
The parasite likes to breed in warm areas with poor sanitation. Health officials advise beachgoers not to walk barefoot in areas like beaches where the parasite lives.
The rash will go away on its own without treatment in about six weeks, but you probably won’t want to forgo treatment until then because the pain and itching will drive your kid mad!
The rash, which can take a few days up to a month to develop, is usually found on your feet or bottom, but can show up anywhere your skin contacted the contaminated sand at the beach or sandbox, or soil.
What the rash looks like
Your doctor may prescribe Albendazole or Thiabendazole to knock out the parasite.
Put this in your First Aid kit:
Topicals that you would use to relieve poison ivy itch: baking soda, witch hazel, cornstarch, oatmeal, calamine lotion, etc.
Wear shoes and protective clothing on the beach, and a barrier like a towel or chair if you’re going to sit.
Clean up after your dog (or give the stink eye to those who don’t) :-)
So. You made it. Thank you for staying with me even after all those gross rash pictures.
Now that you’ve got some knowledge under your belt to identify and deal with these common summer rashes, imagine the calm confidence you will feel, and not panic, the next time you see an ugly rash or hear “I’m ITCHEEEE!!” from your kids.
Because you’ve armed yourself with knowledge and stocked your first aid kit with simple yet effective remedies for the next rash that comes along, you’ll be a more relaxed and happy Mama knowing that your next outdoor expedition won’t be cut short by these common rashes.
Your kids will feel more secure playing in the great outdoors because they know that “Mom knows what to do when stuff happens!”.
You’ll know when you can take care of it yourself, and when you really need to take her to a doctor.
Now you and hubby can really relax after the kids are in bed!
The information in this article is for entertainment purposes and general knowledge. It is not a substitute for medical advice and you should do your own research and consult a medical doctor/healthcare provider for any specific health issues or product recommendations.