Poison Oak, that evil little plant with leaves of three (leave it be) which seems to love gold bearing ground:
Treatments, identification and how to avoid getting it.
We get questions all the time about poison oak and how to keep from getting those nasty blisters after contact with poison oak or ivy. Well, after years and years of hiking through this shiny plant with “leaves of three…….leave it be”, we have a method which works very, very well for us.
Personally, I have been in the hospital three times from this dang plant. Once was from digging in a bench placer about 10 years ago (where I found over 3 ounces and is why I kept going). It was February and no leaves were showing on the plant. As I was digging down into the cobble, there were little shoots of plants and their roots all over. I pulled the roots out by hand, without gloves and later that night, my fingers blistered badly between the joints, so badly that the oil was literally dripping onto the floor from the blisters. I still have scars. The oil in poison oak is always present, even in the roots. Another time was a thicket I had to pass through after a very long exploring and prospecting hike. It was on my clothes and initially I only had exposure on my hands……..until later that night and again the next day when I did that laundry and handled the clothes without washing after handling them. I got the blisters all over my body. The oil (Urushiol) is so thick and so stubborn, it can stay on clothes for weeks, then transfer itself onto your skin. I’ve become exposed to Urushiol oil on numerous occasions without even touching it………..from my dogs. In fact, I got a small patch of poison oak recently from Albert after he jumped on the bed, I got it on the back of my legs.
Do not ever, ever burn poison oak. It can actually be deadly if absorbed into your lungs. There are other ways to have poison oak go “airborne”. Last year, John and I were trying to open up a new trail into “The Ratsnest” a thickly infested claim and I was running a chainsaw cutting down dormant poison oak clusters overhanging the trail. The chainsaw basically turned the plant into a floating poison oak powder which I inhaled many, many times and got it into my lungs and eyes. Put me down for dang near a week, there was the third visit to the hospital. Now, we use dust masks or even a respirator when cutting dormant P.O. Hospital and Dr. treatments typically result in a shot of Kenalog, a white, heavy liquid steroid, about the consistency of syrup. You can imagine what that shot feels like and multiple shots of steroids are not good for your body long term.
Not everyone has allergic reactions to Urushiol oil which is actually present in other plants not just poison oak and poison ivy. My wife does not have an allergic reaction to P.O. Gingko Biloba plants, pistachio and even the mango tree have Urushiol oil. Poison sumac is also another very demonic little plant which can cause severe blistering. According to USFS statistics, 10% of all lost time injuries in the USFS are poison oak related. There are an estimated 50 million cases annually in the United States related to Urushiol oil.
So now that we have scared the heck out of you, how do you keep from getting it?
Don’t touch it, come in contact with it and know how to identify it.
Urushiol oil is heavy and as mentioned, can stay on one’s clothes for weeks. If you walk through a big patch of it, then wash your clothes with a weak detergent, it can actually spread “into” the other clothes in the load and spread all over your body once you wear those other clothes. Actually, I know someone once (a female) who used poison oak as toilet paper……yes, you can imagine how that turned out. So it is very, very important to be able to identify it.
What to do if you have came in contact with poison oak or poison ivy:
DAWN dish washing detergent: This is the best thing since sliced bread for poison oak and ivy. Our AMRA staff carry a small trial sized bottle of Dawn with them in our backpacks. We don’t think they actually make a trial sized bottle, but I steal my wife’s fancy bottles of shampoo she has and dump out the stuff she had in there……..don’t tell her. A trial sized bottle of Dawn lasts me for an entire spring. There are ingredients in Dawn which actually break up the oil on a molecular level (we’ll leave the explanation for a scientist, we just know it works) and if you use COLD water to keep your pores closed, it washes it off your body. After hiking through an area with poison oak, wash up in a creek or at your vehicle with a bottle of water. Start at the top of the exposed area and wash down. Once we get done hiking and get home, we typically will strip down and put all our clothes into a garbage bag and wash them separately. We’ll put a few drops (don’t dump a bunch in or you will have a mess on your hands) in each load, and if we have really been exposed to the plants, we’ll wash the clothes twice. We’ve even heard stories where the second load after washing becomes contaminated in the washer. USE DAWN.
Albie and Charlie (my dogs) have given me poison oak many times. Albie loves baths, Charlie hates them. Too bad, they both get them immediately when we return from hiking. It’s not necessary, nor is it probably healthy to use Dawn on the dogs, we just use a simple puppy shampoo which makes them smell good………but they get really, really good baths and rinsed many, many times.
If you break out in blisters, there is really nothing you can do. If one obsesses with scratching the blisters (because it itches) you can get infections in those blisters and have many more problems arise. Yes, I know many of you are out there saying there is Calamine, Zanfel, zinc oxide or this or that. Well, I can honestly say I’ve tried them all and after you get it, there are only two things which work for me if it is a severe outbreak. Time and a shot. Many people find some relief from taking an antihistamine, but all that does for me is make me sleepy. It does provide relief from the itching temporarily. You can get immediate relief by running your faucet very, very hot, as hot as you can stand and put the infected area under that water. The feeling you get from that is truly euphoric. Just ask John Ratley (AMRA’s Field Manager), I turned him on to that trick last year. The hot water trick completely eliminates the itching for about 4 hours, but due to the fact that it really opens your pores, if you still have any oil present, it will spread. After the initial infection, it is not contagious, meaning nobody can get it from you if your skin blisters.
After getting the blisters probably 20 times per year, we’ve tried everything on the market, even the homeopathic remedies and nothing has worked for us. Yes, we are aware of the stories of Native Americans feeding their children leaves to eat while young and highly advise against this after speaking with a Dr. This can cause death. Hmmm…….death, or some irritating blisters….
We’ve included pictures of several stages of poison oak, Dawn and what blisters look like. If you don’t want poison oak blisters, memorize what it looks like and avoid it like you would a USFS Law Enforcement Agent with a Taser.