Monday, April 21, 2008

FYI: Poison Oak

Avoiding patches of scratches...

So no running today. But I have a confession for you: I've never had Poison Oak. (Shhhh! The Poison Oak gods will descend upon me if they hear!) After doing extensive (ok, 10 minutes) of research, it has become clear that there is no such thing as true immunity. With time and frequency of contact, I'm supposed to get it at some point. However, up until now (knock on wood please), I've been pretty lucky, and for someone who grew up in Santa Barbara hiking all the time and now runs trails 4-5 times a week, that's saying something.

And yet, as Alex pointed out, there are people who move here from places without poison oak (gasp) who have tragic experiences with this plant because they don't know what it looks like. In the Bay Area, trails (especially this time of year) are COVERED with it. If you do not know what it looks like, you are probably headed for some uncomfortable moments... and even if you DO know, it's a distinct possibility. So here's my poison oak primer, with the understanding that I have never actually had it-- I'm not sure if that makes me more or less qualified to dole out advice, but here goes.

1) The oil of poison oak is what makes it contagious. As a result, you can get poison oak easily from bare branches, because the oil can stay on surfaces for up to five years. Do not pick up branches if you do not know what they are.

2) Dogs can pass oil on to you from their fur, but generally don't contract dermatitis because of their fur. In exposed areas like their underbellies however, it is possible for them to react to poison oak. If you have had an allergic reaction to poison oak, make sure your dog stays out of the bushes, and wash thoroughly after touching the dog if you are unsure.

3) Wash with Tecnu if you have developed poison oak. There are a bunch of other products out on the market, all with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the gentle readers who have experience with poison oak would be so kind as to leave their best remedy in the comment section. As I said before, I have no real experience in this department.

4) What I AM good at though, is identifying poison oak fast. Here's what my botanically inclined mother taught me: Poison oak comes in leaves with three clusters. (The old adage, "Leaves of three- let them be" does not really cover it, because there are several different plants in the hills of the Bay Area that also grow in groups of three.) The leaves of poison oak are slightly scalloped, like a holly leaf with rounded edges instead of points. The leaves are generally shiny, but I have seen poison oak I might describe as matte.  Those leaves can be reddish (a gorgeous red, and if I didn't know how much pain it would cause me, I'd be tempted to pick them for a fall bouquet) or green. Poison oak can also be bare branches, as I said earlier, so do not assume that simply because there are no leaves around, you are good to go.

5) This means that off-trail shenanigans might be a terrible, terrible idea for you if you are not an expert poison oak identifier or if it's during fall or winter. I have heard horror stories from people that thought they were having a titillating moment only to find out the moment became inescapable as they itched and itched in places they didn't really want to scratch in public...

6) Go practice. Look at these pictures, find more on the internet and then 
go out and see how fast you can identify poison oak. This might not help (my brother is highly allergic and he is an expert poison oak spotter) but you might save yourself some icky itching.

Funniest sentence I came across today? "Some products, such as poison oak tablets and droplets, have been withdrawn from the market because of severe allergic reactions in hypersensitive people. In fact, the side effects in some people, such as severe anal itching, were often unacceptable." Yeah, one might be tempted to stick with the poison oak in this case... 

Note to self: Am I doomed now that I have the words "flirty" "dirty" and "anal" all on my blog?

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