Monday, March 26, 2012

Out and about with Poison Oak

If you spend time on the trails below 4,000 feet, Poison Oak will be present.  The best defense from skin rash is to avoid direct or indirect contact.  The active skin irritant in Poison Oak is called urushiol.  Urushiol is described as a sticky resin or oil. 
Urushiol is released from the plant when it is bruised from contact.  Urushiol can contact your skin directly from the plant or by contact with contaminated objects such as shoes, clothing, or water bottles. Even your dog can transfer the urushiol to you.  Urushiol can stay active on any surface for over one year.  Never let anyone else handle your exposed clothing or gear. 
Everyone can develop sensitivity to urushiol.  Your sensitivity can develop at any time.  The more exposures you receive, the more likely you are to develop a rash.  Therefore, even if you have never had poison oak or think you are immune, you should avoid the plant. 
Nice fresh growth along the American River Bike Trail, Sacramento.  3/24/2012 
The first step to avoidance is identification.   You really have to spend some time learning to identify poison oak because it has so many looks.  Generally it grows as a bush, but can grow as a low lying bedding plant or as a vine that grows up into trees.  It has leaves that look like oak leaves, usually three leaflets per leaf with a shiny look.  In the spring, when the leaves are green, the plant will develop white or green berries.  By late summer the leaves will turn more yellow and then turn red, before falling off for the winter.
Often times when poison oak grows along a trail, the leaves get knocked off from other trail users, leaving only the bare branches.  The unassuming branches that are difficult to identify, are just as potent as the leaves.  This is why I avoid every piece of shrubbery I come to when out on the trails in areas with poison oak. 
Beautiful fall color on the left and the nearly bare stick along the trail on the right.  Mouse click to enlarge photos.
Friends don’t let friends wander off trail for a pit-stop if the friend can’t identify poison oak.  I have heard many a horror story of folks, particularly women, who find out later that their call to nature was in a thicket of poison oak.
The symptoms of poison oak are severe itching at the site of contact which can begin 12 to 36 hours after contact.  Later, a red inflammation and a blistering of the skin occur.  In more severe cases, weeping or oozing of the blisters begins.  Once the itching begins, you can apply anti-itch products for comfort while the rash runs its course.  In severe cases you might need a steroid shot such as cortisone.
If you come into contact with poison oak, you need to wash the urushiol off your skin.  The literature suggests that it takes at least 15 minutes of exposure to penetrate the skin and start the rash.  The trick is to get the urushiol oil off your skin as quickly as possible after your run or bike ride.  Soap and lots of water works.  Dish washing soap (like Dawn) with an oil cutter is better than standard bar soap.  Products such as Tecnu and Zanfel are easy to use in the field to get the oil off.  There is a product called IvyBlock that is applied before exposure to protect your skin, but I haven’t heard of anyone using it.  I know a lot of trail runners that are pleased with Tecnu.
The next time you are trail running/biking at lower altitudes, stay out of the bushes, watch for rattlesnakes, and check for ticks when you get back to your car.  Have fun out there!

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