Poison Oak: How to Avoid it, Treat it

When taking a walk in the woods, tick bites aren’t your only concern. After the heavy rains earlier this year, poison oak is in abundance on the West Coast. To avoid suffering from a case of poison oak, understand how to spot the plant and the different ways you can get exposed.

The oil (called urushiol) released on poison oak’s broken leaves is what causes an allergic reaction for most people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 80 to 90 percent of all adults will get a rash. All it takes is a microscopic amount of oil.

You can get exposed to poison oak by having direct contact with the plant, touching objects or animals that have the oil on them, or by breathing in particles from burning poison oak plants.

To avoid exposure to poison oak, understand where you usually find it and what it looks like. It’s native to the western United States and can be found in woody areas, fields, and hillsides. Poison oak is usually a shrub or can grow as a climbing vine, and has leaf groups, usually in threes. The leaves are large and are toothed or lobed, which are either red or green depending on the amount of sunlight exposure. Poison oak may also have small yellow or green flowers and clusters of green-yellow or white berries. (See poison oak photos on CDC website).

Other ways to avoid exposure include:

  • Wear shirts with long sleeves and pants that can be tucked into boots.
  • Wash your pet if you think it may have had contact with poison oak.
  • Do not burn poison oak, because if inhaled, the smoke can cause respiratory problems. See a doctor if you think you’ve breathed in the fumes.

Symptoms of poison oak contact will appear in the first day or two after exposure and will last about one to three weeks. Call your doctor if the symptoms don’t go away or get worse. Remember to always check the license of your doctor on the Medical Board of California’s website at www.mbc.ca.gov or Osteopathic Medical Board of California’s website at www.ombc.ca.gov.

Generally, poison oak can be treated at home. CDC recommends:

  • Rinse skin with rubbing alcohol or degreasing soap (like dishwashing soap), and plenty of cool water.
  • Thoroughly scrub under nails with a brush.
  • Apply wet compresses, calamine lotion, or hydrocortisone cream.
  • Take an antihistamine, but be aware that this may cause drowsiness.

If you’re experiencing more serious symptoms such as difficulty breathing or swallowing, swelling on your face, fever, or nausea, call 911 or immediately get to an emergency room.






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