Maybe you know the feeling.
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A few days after digging in the garden, or after a nice hike in the woods, a little rash starts to develop. Maybe a day later, small blisters appear. Soon, anywhere that your shirt rubs you, or where your seatbelt lays over your shoulder, itches like crazy. The next thing you know you look like you have chicken pox all over your body; on your stomach, across your beltline, maybe where your hat sets across your forehead.
Poison oak is hard to avoid in this region, and once you encounter it, it never seems to want to go away. It is popping up everywhere now, as spring is its prime season for growth.
A member of the anacordiacae, or sumac, family of flora, western poison oak can be found up and down California, north into Oregon, and south into Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Mangoes are a part of this family and handling the skins of the fruit can lead to a re-aggravation for those most sensitive to the poison.
Actually, even though it belongs to the genus toxicodendron, which translates from Greek as “poison tree,” it’s technically not poison at all that gets us so itchy. The members of this genus all produce a chemical called urushiol, technically an allergen, to which about 80-90 percent of people react with contact dermatitis. Hence the fact that some people seem immune. Those people should be warned, however, because many studies suggest that a heavy exposure for anyone could lead to a reaction now, and then to a higher sensitivity to poison oak for the rest of their lives.
What basically happens is the body is overreacting to contact with something not really that harmful. The body alerts the immune system, which prepares a defensive reaction for the next time the body encounters urishiol. The reaction shows itself in the form of an itchy, blistery rash.
If you go to a pharmacy they might suggest an anti-itch cream like calamine or hydrocortisone cream. Oregon-based pharmaceutical company Tec Lab makes Technu, a spray that will mellow the itch and prevent scarring. Allergy medication like Benedryl will ease the pain and help you sleep. Note that all of theses remedies do nothing to shorten the life-span of any reaction; they are merely Band-Aid fixes that will help get you through the ordeal. Count on it lasting one-three weeks, minimum. For extreme cases, doctors will prescribe, or inject, a steroid to fight the reaction.
An online search seeking a cure will yield many solutions; some found in the pantry, such as buttermilk and baking soda, some in the shed, like gunpowder, and others in the compost pile, watermelon rind/banana peel.
Local “Naturopathic Practitioner” Dr. Deborahe Prock offers a few more chemical-free remedies to her patients, among which are employees of the U.S. Forest Service. According to a pamphlet she distributes, most poisonous plants have a cure within 10 feet. “Dr. Deb” advises using a tea made from Manzanita leaves that can be drunk or applied directly to the rash. It can also be put in a spray bottle to clean the urushiol off of pets.
“A lot of the exposure is cuddling with the cat who has just rolled in the poison oak or the dog who has been running through it,“ warns Dr. Deb.
As far as removing poison oak from your yard, Dr. Deb recommends using white vinegar, which she says also works on star thistle, a non-poisonous but annoying weed that thrives locally.
If you have lot of poison oak on your land, you may need something more powerful, but be warned that these are highly poisonous chemicals that will kill nearly everything that grows and can be dangerous near pets and livestock. The active ingredient in these are usually glyphosale (found in Roundup) or triclopyr (in Ortho Brush-B-Gone and Monterey Brush and Vine Control). Both can be found at Placerville Fruit Growers Exchange, where the friendly staff is happy to help.
Products like Ivy Block can be put on pre-exposure, bonding with urushiol to make it inactive. Such oils aren’t for everyone, but can be effective.
Of course, none of this is relevant as long as exposure is avoided. Get to know poison oak by sight and avoid it if at all possible. The leaves resemble oak leaves (of course), but have a waxier sheen and sprout in clusters of three. When in doubt, remember the adage, “leaves of three, let it be.”