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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Poison Oak

     Leaves of three, let it be! 
     Hairy vine, no friend of mine! 

     While poison ivy is the most common cause of what they cal “contact dermatitis” in the United States, a bunch of other common plants can cause skin reactions: strawberry, garlic, tomato, comfrey, borage, rose hips, hot peppers, tulip bulbs, daffodil bulbs and hyacinth bulbs. 
     Also, I did not know this because I live in the North where crappy weather is often the norm, but the combined exposure to lemons, limes, clementines, oranges and grapefruit, which all contain light-sensitizing chemicals, can cause a rash. 
     Saturday was a nice day and the hedges needed trimming. So, come Monday morning small red bumps that itch like crazy were beginning to appear on my forearms. I knew immediately what it was...poison oak. I knew because it’s growing in one end of the hedges and I got it last year, too. You’d think I’d remember, but you can forget a lot of stuff in a year. 
     Many people get a rash from poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac (rare except in the southern US). The rash is caused by an oil found in the plants (urushiol). 
     Oddly, the itchy, blistering rash often does not start until 12 to 72 hours after you come into contact with the oil. Or, if it’s a person’s first exposure symptoms can take up to a week to appear! As the rash develops it appears to be spreading, but it’s not really; it’s just a delayed reaction. 
     Most people see the rash go away in a few weeks, but for some people the reaction can be serious and require a doctor’s care. Swelling is a sign of a serious reaction, especially if the eyes swell shut or the face swells. Trouble breathing or swallowing also warrants a trip to the emergency room. 
     Hunters and outdoorsmen should also use caution if they relieve themselves in the woods. In the Marine Corps I knew one fellow who got poison ivy on his manhood from peeing in the woods. It was horrible and he actually required hospitalization. 
     Poison oak is a relative of poison ivy. Both contain the same toxic resin which is present in all parts of the plant, not just the leaves. The resin is toxic to humans but harmless to animals. 
     Both plants have three leaflets, white flowers in spring, and can grow as a vine or a shrub. The leaflets can range in size from the length of your thumb to the length of your hand and the middle leaflet has a notably longer stem than the two side leaflets, though it's more obvious in poison ivy than poison oak.  Depending on the season, leaf color can range from green to orange and even a dark purplish-red. 
     In North America, there are two species of poison oak: Atlantic (Eastern) and Pacific (Western). Atlantic poison oak is a low-growing, upright shrub that can grow to be about 3 feet tall, sometimes giving it the appearance of a vine.
     Pacific poison oak can grow either as a shrub or a vine, causing it to be even more readily confused with poison ivy. The leaf shape resembles an oak leaf, but it’s not a member of the oak family. The leaflets are duller green than poison ivy and usually more distinctly lobed or toothed. 
     Unlike poison ivy, poison oak leaflets have hairs on both sides. While the fruit of poison ivy is the color of pearls, poison oak fruit has a tan color. 

Here are some interesting facts: 
#  Symptoms of poison oak include itchy red rashes that can resemble burns, swelling, and even blistering. 
#  Upon contact with your body, urushiol immediately forms a chemical bond to the skin and causes an almost unstoppable allergic reaction. 
#  Urushiol will stay on clothes, pets, or other materials for months and its potency lasts. This means that you could even get poison oak without going anywhere near it. 
#  The urushiol resin can cause harsher reactions for those who have been exposed to it before. 
#  Sensitivity to urushiol might decrease if you do not come into contact with it until later in life. 
#  Only about 15 percent of people are resistant to urushiol, but even they may become sensitive with repeated exposure. 
#  Danger: Smoke inhalation from burning poison oak can send you straight to the emergency room, so never burn this plant!! 

     The best chance at avoiding a reaction is to treat poison oak within 10 minutes of contact. Urushiol is not water-soluble and the use of strong soaps (like dish soap) and cold water to keep the oils from spreading is the first course of action. Then rinse off with cold water. 
     As urushiol can remain active for months, it’s necessary to wash any clothes or items that may have come into contact with the oil...which, by the way, is invisible. 
     The rash can be treated with calamine lotion, baking soda pastes, aloe vera and a number of commercial products. Another proven remedy is oatmeal.

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