Joy of the outdoors outweighs the dangers

poison ivy

Guidelines for raising free-range chickens state that chickens need “meaningful and regular” time in an outdoor area. I am more concerned that I have free-range children than free-range chickens.

Chickens forage for bugs and greens. Children forage for adventure and discovery. I send them outside to breathe fresh air and to have a break from technology. I feel like I have set them up for success as far as identifying plants and being aware of their surroundings.

Leaves of three

I found out quickly this spring that I should have offered a refresher course in identifying poison ivy. Shouting, “Leaves of three, leave them be,” would not have been beneficial since the leaves are shriveled and dead. However, a reminder to diligently watch for vines would have helped.

I have never been overly concerned about poison ivy — mainly because I have never had a reaction to poison ivy. My husband is not sensitive either. We had hoped that it was a genetic trait and our children would not react to the plant oil either.

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac all contain a plant oil called urushiol. Interestingly, urushiol is also found in mango rinds and cashew shells. Roughly, only 15% of the population does not have a sensitivity to the plant oil urushiol.

Multiple exposures to the plant oil is needed before a reaction occurs. It could be that I have not had enough exposures to develop a sensitivity. However, with my time in the woods and outdoors, I think it is most likely that I am in the lucky 15%. I should knock on the nearest wood not covered in vines with leaves of three after that bold statement.

Peak sensitivity

The peak age in children for developing a sensitivity is between the ages of 8-14. My 10-year-old came in from outside with a few scratches and reddened skin that looked like a sunburn even though it wasn’t a sunny day. Days later, his skin developed bumps and blisters that characterize a reaction to poison ivy.

Typically a reaction occurs in 8-48 hours after an exposure. If it is the first reaction or sensitivity, it can take up to 7-10 days to display symptoms of a poison ivy exposure. The more times a child is exposed to poison ivy, the more likely a reaction will occur.

Many family members shared their stories of poison ivy reactions after seeing his rash. My aunt shared a story about how she had a very severe response to smoke from a burn pile that must have had poison ivy in it. Unfortunately, inhaling smoke that contains urushiol can trigger a severe allergic reaction.

Nature’s cures

Nature often provides its own cure; a plant oil causes the reaction and it can also be cured by plants. A colloidal oatmeal bath soothes skin irritations like a poison ivy rash.

During late summer months, jewelweed can be crushed and the juices applied to the affected areas. Aloe Vera is another plant that provides soothing relief to rashes including poison ivy. We also used an over the counter topical corticosteroid spray at bedtime that provided relief from itching.

Fortunately, his first response to poison ivy did not require a trip to the doctor. We had numerous lessons in prevention and showed him many examples of poison ivy. He now knows that if he is exposed, he can wash the oil off within ten minutes of exposure.

It is important to me that his experience with poison ivy doesn’t discourage him from playing outside. Children today spend less time outside than any other generation. The National Recreation and Park Association reports a staggering statistic that children on average only spend 4-7 minutes in unstructured outdoor play time compared to 7.5 hours in front of electronic media.

I emphasized knowledge over fear especially with identifying poison ivy and proactively preventing future exposures. I also try to keep the small things small and not make a big deal about his short experience with an itchy rash.

There are forts to be built and enemy ambushes waiting to happen where the grass meets the woods and a grove of trees are the gateway to imaginative play.


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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at



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