Poison Oak

Poison Oak: Portal to Hell


One of the most beautiful examples of fall color in our area is poison oak. It often turns red weeks before any other nearby deciduous trees, revealing itself in stark contrast to the amber grasses and green foliage.

Poison oak takes many forms, including woody bushes, sparse ground cover, and strong vines that can climb trees up to 40 feet.

And for the 85% of us who develop sensitivity to it over the course of our lives, it has roots extending down to the realm of the devil, where it gets its supply of itch.

There is a lot of conflicting folklore out there about this plant and its effects. What follows is information that most experts seem to agree on, plus unscientific data from this intrepid reporter, who, for the sake of journalistic integrity, has contracted a poison oak rash every year since 1970.


Spotting the Plant


Look for three leafed plants, swaying like a cobra, trying to hypnotize you into touching it. When Adam and Eve ate the apple, they suddenly had knowledge they didn't want. "Holy crap, this whole place is full of poison oak!" It looks a lot like native blackberry, but without spines on the stems. Leaves turn red in the fall, and then drop. Remember where those plants are, because even the dead looking stems can get you.

The best way to get rid of poison oak on your property is to use a thermonuclear device, but it's hard to get a permit. The second best way is to hire somebody to get rid of it while you're on vacation. (Wear gloves when opening the bill)

An interesting alternative is to rent a bunch of goats, which eat it, along with blackberry and thistles and, according to various cartoons I've seen, boots.


The Kiss of Itch


All parts of the Poison Oak plant contain a nasty oil called urushiol, a substance as hard to avoid as it is to pronounce. It's the same stuff that's in poison ivy.

Many people get poison oak not from the plant directly, but from other things that have touched the plant, like your clothes or dog. If you can breed a dog that naturally avoids poison oak, you'll never have to work again.

Once the oil gets on your skin, it takes as little as 15 minutes for it to start binding to the cells in the skin. The longer it's there, and the more you spread it around your body before washing, the worse it'll be.


So You Touched it Anyway


If it's likely that you got some urushiol on you, take immediate action. If you're still on the trail and brushed your arm against it, pour a lot of water over the spot. Don't wipe it with a cloth, which just contaminates the cloth and rubs the oil into the skin. When you get home, take a long cool shower, not a bath. Use soap.

To be especially thorough, you can use a specialty cleaner like Teknu, or wipe the area with rubbing alcohol. But timing is more important than the cleaner. Hurry. HURRY!


When the Blisters Appear


If you start to notice blisters rising on your skin like a chain of Pacific islands, you messed up. This is your body reacting to the oil. If you know you're extremely allergic you probably already know to go to the doctor for a shot of cortisone. This usually stops the reaction. Otherwise, you'll probably be dealing with the itch for a couple weeks.

One of the most effective ways of reducing the itch is to run very hot, but not scalding, water over the rash until the near-orgasmic sensation stops. Yes, near-orgasmic. It's the only good thing about getting the rash. Afterwards, you'll have hours of itch free existence.

Calamine lotion help a bit to dry the rash, which can get really oozy and disgusting. Calamine lotion is tinted like pink foundation makeup, so the rash looks a little less frightening. This is assuming you're white, of course. If you're dark skinned, it may look like you used Barbie for a skin graft.

Your friends may think you're contagious. You're not, as long as you've washed off the original oils. The rash itself can't affect others, nor can it infect other parts of your body. This is true, but they probably won't believe you anyway.

Many people report that taking an antihistamine, like Benadryl, reduces itching and helps you sleep, even while driving.


Granted Immunity


Local native Americans, the Ohlone groups, were allegedly unaffected by the plant, and even used its dark juice for tattoo ink and for staining patterns in baskets. They also used it medicinally for ringworm, warts, and rattlesnake bites.

Lots of people don't react to poison oak, and even brag about it in a most uncool manner. However, sensitivity often increases after several exposures. "Look, I'm rubbing it on my face!" Famous last words.