Sure everyone has heard the old rhyme “leaves of three let it be” but if you were hiking through the woods could you identify poison oak? Don’t worry if you say you can’t. You’re not alone. Most people, even those previously exposed, have a hard time identifying Poison Oak.
Poison Oak contains an irritating, oily sap called urushiol. Urushiol triggers an allergic reaction when it comes into contact with skin, resulting in an itchy rash, which can appear within hours of exposure or up to several days later. A person can be exposed to urushiol directly or by touching objects – clothing, gear or pet fur that has come in contact with the plant.
WebMD: The rash that results from the poison plants is a form of allergic contact dermatitis. (Dermatitis is swelling and irritation of the skin.) Skin is not automatically sensitive to urushiol. Sensitivity builds up after the skin is exposed to the substance. When initially exposed to urushiol, the skin alerts the immune system of the presence of the irritating chemical. (Usually, no visible reaction will occur the first time a person comes in contact with a poison plant.) The immune system then prepares a defensive reaction for the next time the skin encounters the substance. This sensitizes the skin so that new contact with urushiol causes an allergic reaction.
What Should You Do If You Think You Have Been Exposed to Poison Oak?
Start by removing your clothes and bagging them. Once you are home use rubber gloves to remove them from the plastic bag and wash them.
Wash all exposed areas with cool running water. Use soap and water. Be sure to clean under your fingernails. In the woods, the water of a running stream can be an effective cleanser.
Wash your camping gear and anything else that may have come in contact with the plants.
Bathe pets exposed to the plants.
I’m Breaking Out. What Do I Do Now?
I don’t really even need to describe what it’s like to break out with poison oak. You’ll know what it is right away.
If you start breaking out take cool showers and apply an over-the-counter lotion — such as calamine lotion — to help relieve the itch.
If your reaction is more severe or involves mucus membranes around your eyes, nose, mouth, and genitals seek medical attention immediately. It’s not life threatening but you’ll need a prescription medication such as Prednisone to help get rid of the itch which can become VERY uncomfortable if left untreated.
The best way not to get poison oak is prevention. Yosemite has Poison Oak nearly everywhere. The plants range from large brushy thickets to small knee-high, weed-like twigs. Sometimes they’re easy to see and others they’re obscured by other brush.
The best way not to get poison oak is to use a little caution. Here are a couple simple things you can do to help prevent spending a night in the woods itching and scratching.
Wear long pants and long sleeves in Poison Oak territory.
Don’t go through it if you don’t have to. Go around if another way is accessible.
Wash immediately if you think you’ve been exposed.
I hope this will help you have a happy and itch-free trip.
Photo by marymactavish.