Trails in Northern California

Trails in Northern California

Leave No Trace!

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June 28, 2011

Our Poison Oak Controversy, Identification and Prevention

Prevention and Treatment of Poison Oak/Sumac

Updated 8-2012
It is not contagious, but you can get it from pets or equipment from the oil still being on them and transferring it to you. The rash doesn't occur immediately and can take up to a week.  It spreads as places less exposed react after severely exposed patches are already erupting with itchy, oozing rash.
POISON OAK in the fall.  The leaves are glossy, unlike oak leaves. It is active whether you touch dead or live leaves, stems, or even roots!  The best preventions are to avoid elevations it grows in or don't come in contact with any part of it.
Summary: It will grow from sea level up to 5,000 feet.  I find it less the higher I go.  Your pet rubbing by it can expose you to the oils also.  Clean your gear while wearing gloves.  I use rubbing alcohol for skin and equipment.  Soap is okay if you have running water to wash it all away.

Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of bentoquatam, which is available over the counter, to prevent poison ivy. It comes in a lotion that should be applied to the skin at least 15 minutes before exposure to poison ivy, oak, or sumac. It provides a barrier that protects against or reduces the severity of the rash caused by the plants. Susceptible persons should reapply it every 4 hours for continued protection while they are in settings where they might become exposed to poison ivy, oak, or sumac. Bentoquatam should not be used if people already have a rash from these plants. It is especially useful for those who find it difficult to avoid contact with poison ivy, oak, or sumac, such as park rangers and hikers. It is not recommended for children under age 6.
☺Wear long pants, long sleeves, hat and gloves if you know you will be exposed to these plants, even if they are believed to be dead since the poison remains for up to several years! Note that sap can seep through fabrics and even latex gloves though, so continue with pre and post exposure treatment to help avoid reactions.

This hiker GOT poison oak on this trail to Traverse Creek despite wearing covering including hat and gloves! Unbelievable!
Plan your outings in elevations these plants can't grow.
Don't take pets out in areas with poison oak or ivy, or avoid touching pets until they and their equipment are washed.

Recognize plants (even when dormant of dead) and avoid touching the plants. All parts are poisonous, including even the roots.
Once Exposed: by direct contact, indirect contact (pets and equipment) or even air contact:
If you have been exposed to poison oak, poison ivy, or sumac, it is advisable to:
Remove all of your clothes. (My allergic companion's preference is to use gloves and to put the clothes straight into the washer.)  Your gloves should be cotton and washable too.
Wash all exposed body areas with cool running water as soon as possible. Use soap and water if possible, being sure to clean under your fingernails (where some internet sources say the oil can stay for days)! A running stream is reported to be effective in removing the oil, too. The sooner you wash it off, the less of a reaction there should be. Strong soap and scrubbing merely irritate the skin and are not more effective than mild soap and gentle washing. This was my friends' experience with one of those scrubs for poison oak....we think it may have just spread and rubbed in the oils because they got it allll over that time.
Wash all of your clothing and equipment that came in contact with the plants.
Bathe pets that were exposed to the plants. My additional comment is that good sense would suggest not letting them in the house or to touch anything, even their beds, that could leave oil residues which may expose you.

     See a doctor if your symptoms are of concern. 
If you aren't sure your rash is poison oak then see a doctor for diagnoses. Rashes shouldn't last more than 3 weeks. If it spreads over large areas, gets into your mouth, eyes, etc, or if or for fever or infection of affected areas, you should go to a doctor.  Prednisone can be perscribed if over the counter products are not relief enough and seems like the choice treatment of my allergic friends.

Relief at home:
  • Cool compresses and cool showers might help. 
  • 1% hydrocortisone helps some peoples' symptoms, as advised by labels or your doctor.
  • Using over the counter antihistamines helps some people. 
  • Your rash is not contagious, but may spread.

POISON OAK/IVY MYTHS gives a great informative list of myths and facts regarding poison oak and poison ivy, from prevention, exposure, intermediate treatment to a solid explanation of how it spreads (and doesn't) and what follow-up helps.
Sources used for information shared in this post:

Our story:
Old Rubicon Trail

Hiker dressed to avoid poison oak contact.
My hiking cohort went on a hike along a river in the foothills (The Old Rubicon Trail) at a higher elevation than the hikes we do in the lower elevation Gold Country area where poison oak is known to thrive. I didn't think it would be poison oak territory since there was none on our recent Grizzly Flats hike. My companion noticed it almost right away, and is allergic, but he was wearing long pants, long sleeves, and a gloves. I teasingly said he should have an OSHA suit!
My hiking partner said he must have gotten it from my gear or clothers or my skin that had been exposed by wearing shorts and short sleeves.
Peachy Hiker in poison oak territory.
Today we talked and I told him my research says I am innocent; he said he did research too and it confirmed that I am the cause of his poison oak outbreak!  The whole discussion and research are a bit funny....if you want someone to agree with almost ANYTHING, the research is out there on the net!  I would LOVE your comments and stories (haha, preferably supporting my views!).
Again, please share your suggestions, experiences and remedies! 
None of the suggestions for products are endorsements by Peachy Hiker.  I am not allergic, so I couldn't test them.  Everything I suggest is based on the first hand experience of people I hike with and research.

Peachy Hiker's Table of Contents
Happy Trails!