Poison-oak can be a bush or a vine. It grows in sunlight, it grows in shade, it grows up and down the Pacific Coast of the United States and southern Canada. When camping anywhere west of the Cascades or Sierras, below about 5,000 feet, you need to be aware of Poison-oak and educate your children about how to spot it.
Coming into contact with any part of the plant (leaves, stem, or roots), or just about any object that has had contact with the plant (clothing, shoes, your dog, etc.), can lead to an itchy skin rash, caused by the urushiol (ph. “you-roo-she-all”) oil in and on the plant, within 24 hours. Although the rash itself is not contagious, the urushiol oil is very persistent and if not washed from the skin or clothes, can lead to secondary reactions. The rash can persist for several weeks, depending on your body’s reaction.
The picture above is a fairly typical springtime example of Poison-oak; glossy dark green leaves, with lobes reminiscent of oak tree leaves. Unfortunately, the leaves of Poison-oak can take on many different characteristics; smoother edges without the lobes, five leaves instead of three and colors ranging from bright pink or red in the early spring, turning dark green in the spring and early summer, yellowing through summer and often returning to bright red in the fall.
Arborist M.D. Vaden, of Oregon, has an excellent collection of photographs on his website that depict a lot of the variation that is inherent to the plant. Starting your own picture collection is a great way to learn how to spot the plant and if you camp at any of the state or federal parks, a Ranger will be happy to point some examples out to you. Chances are, you won’t have to go far to find it!
Being able to spot Poison-oak is the first step in preventing an allergic reaction. If you are hiking in an area that you know has a high concentration of the plant, you might consider wearing pants instead of shorts, along with a long-sleeved shirt. Be sure to change your clothes after the hike, and consider a cool shower with an urushiol-cleansing product like Tecnu®, which removes the oil from your skin.
Soap is not nearly as effective at cutting the oil. If a rash does develop, your best course of action is to cool the affected area, which constricts the blood vessels and reduces itching. Calamine lotion will extend the relief and help dry up any oozing from the small bumps that are common to the rash.
So far, we have been successful in avoiding Poison-oak on our family camping trips in Northern California and Western Oregon – but I know that it is just a matter of time. Do you have any tips to share, for dealing with it?