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3 itchy conditions you can catch from your kids

6 minute read
Mom cuddling with her two kids in bed

Early treatment is the best way to prevent poison ivy, impetigo and lice from turning into a major source of discomfort for both you and your child. 

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

Kids give us so much. They give us hugs, cuddles and lots of giggles. But they can also give us contagious health conditions. Sometimes these can be very uncomfortable, but thankfully, they’re usually also treatable.

Here’s the lowdown on 3 itchy infections or infestations you can catch from your little one.

Poison ivy

Oil from the leaves and stem of the poison ivy plant is responsible for the itchy rash that typically appears after exposure. The affected area blisters and turns red. It generally appears after 1 or 2 days, but it can last for 2 or 3 weeks. Poison oak and sumac cause similar rashes, and they can be treated in the same ways.

How kids typically get it
Poison ivy grows in fields, forests and other wooded areas. Children can pick it up while playing outdoors, or even from a pet that rubbed against the plant. “Kids usually get poison ivy when the weather is nice and everyone is outside,” says Katy Gibson, DO, a pediatrician and mother of 4 in Rochester, Minnesota.

How it spreads and how to stop it
Fortunately, you can’t get poison ivy simply by touching your child’s rash or the pus that comes out of it, says Dr. Gibson. For a rash to develop, you must get the plant’s oil on your skin.

That said, your child can spread the oil to you immediately after playing in the woods. In most cases, that’s before a rash appears. The oil can also live on your child’s clothing or on any toys the little adventurer may have dragged through poison ivy. So avoid bear hugs when your child emerges from the woods, and take care when cleaning clothing and toys.

Fortunately, regular dishwashing soap can eliminate the oil. But you must use it quickly. “Washing within 1 hour of exposure gives you the best opportunity for getting the oil off your child’s skin,” says Krupa Playforth, MD, a pediatrician in northern Virginia. Use lukewarm or cool water and wash gently and thoroughly. Of course, that only works if you or your poison-ivy-spying kids know they were exposed.

Other ways to avoid an itchy rash: Have your kids wear pants and long sleeves if they’re playing in woodsy areas, if possible. Check around your yard for poison ivy, and if you find it, cut the vines and spray the roots with an herbicide containing glyphosate. And finally, teach your children what to look for. Show them pictures online and point the plant out when you see it on the trail.

How to care for it
If a rash does occur, apply hydrocortisone cream 3 times a day. (Check the label for specific instructions for use in children. It may vary based on age and weight.) You can also offer an oral antihistamine such as Benadryl every 6 hours, which will further reduce itching. Hot water can irritate the rash. To relieve discomfort, have your child soak in a bath of cool water for 20 minutes at a time, repeating as often as needed to soothe itching and oozing. You can also try a product such as Ivarest.

If the rash lasts longer than 2 weeks or looks infected, call your doctor. You should also call your doctor if your child’s face swells or if the rash covers a large part of your child’s body, says Rose De Grauw-Mare, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital in New York.

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You’ll recognize impetigo as red, itchy sores that rupture, ooze and eventually form a honey-colored crust. It appears most frequently around a child’s nose or lips but can occur all over the body.

Impetigo is caused by bacteria you may already recognize staph (staphylococcus) and strep (streptococcus). But in this case, it occurs on the skin. The most likely site of infection is where skin is already broken, such as around a bug bite that your child has scratched.

How kids typically get it
The infection is most common in children ages 2 through 5, and it’s often transmitted in crowded childcare settings. It’s also somewhat common among athletes in sports such as wrestling and football, where skin-to-skin contact occurs often. Impetigo likes humid, hot conditions, so it’s more common during the summer months.

How it spreads and how to stop it
Avoid touching your child’s rash. Because impetigo is a bacterial infection, it can spread through touch, says Dr. Playforth.

You should also be vigilant of what your kid touches. Impetigo can spread to others through towels, clothes and bedding that touched the infected person’s skin. So wash these items with hot water and dry on high. To that end, encourage your kid to keep her hands off her own body. The rash can spread that way, too.

How to care for it
As with other bacterial infections, you treat impetigo with antibiotics. The most common is the topical prescription cream mupirocin. Wear gloves when you apply it to your child’s blisters or at least wash your hands thoroughly afterward, says Dr. Playforth. In cases of severe impetigo, or when cream isn’t practical, the doctor may prescribe oral antibiotics instead.

Head lice

These tiny parasitic insects live close to the human scalp and feed on human blood. While they do not carry disease, they cause itching at the site of the bug bites. Scratching can lead to blisters, and left untreated, they can become infected.

How kids typically get it
Kids pick up lice from someone they’ve been in close contact with. The insects can also transfer to blankets, clothing or stuffed animals and then travel to another host. So if your child is at a sleepover and 1 kid has lice, chances are good the insects will spread into your home.

Children in day care and elementary school, along with the people they live with, are most likely to get head lice.

How it spreads and how to stop it
“The good news is that lice can’t fly or jump,” says Dr. Playforth. That means they travel only through direct contact.

Tell your children not to share anything that touches their head, such as hats, combs, brushes and barrettes. Also avoid scarves and towels. If your child plays a sport in which helmets are shared, you might consider offering disposable plastic hair liners to wear underneath.

How to care for it
Head lice medicines are sold over the counter or by prescription. Some kill only insects. Others, such as the prescription topical lotion spinosad, kill both lice and lice eggs. Spinosad is approved for use in children 6 months and older.

If you’re using a medicine that does not kill lice eggs, it’s important to apply a second treatment 7 to 9 days later. After washing the medicine out, comb the hair with a fine-toothed comb to get rid of the eggs. Then wash all your child’s towels and bedding. Use hot water and dry on high heat. For items that can’t be laundered, store them in a sealed plastic bag for 2 weeks. That’s long enough for the lice to die off.

Need to stock up on lice-busting supplies? Optum Store has you covered. Shop now.

Additional sources
Poison ivy, oak and sumac overview: American Academy of Pediatrics
Impetigo overview: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Head lice: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention