How to Identify Poison Oak and How to Deal with It

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There is nothing like exploring nature. Whether hiking, mountain climbing, or camping in the woods is your thing, there is no doubt that being close to Mother Nature, appreciating all the beautiful things surrounding you is one of the nicest experiences in life. However, exposure to skin irritants like poison oak can instantly put a damper on your adventurous spirit. Those who are used to being around this plant can easily avoid it, but most people don’t even know it when they see it. Continue reading to learn how to identify poison oak and how to deal with it.

What is poison oak?

Poison oak is an infamous plant that is found in sets of three. Its green leaves are reminiscent of an oak tree and have ragged edges, as opposed to the pointed leaves of poison ivy. It causes a red, uncomfortable and itchy rash known as allergic contact dermatitis, and it’s found in most places in the country.

Like its “sister” shrub poison ivy, poison oak has the ingredient urushiol. This is an oil found in the plant’s leaves, stems, and roots, and is what causes the itching when it comes in contact with the skin. Not only does it stick to the skin, it’s also transferrable from clothing and gardening tools. Since the rash is spread through the oil, you can only catch it by touching the oil itself and not the blister or rash that it causes.

Once you are exposed to urushiol, you become allergic to it, meaning you will be more sensitive and your body can react worse to it in the future.

How to identify poison oak

Learn what you can about poison oak. If you like frequenting the woods, taking the time to learn about poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac is something you should do because if how widespread these shrubs are in the country. These plants are of the same botanical family, but it’s important to differentiate between them so you know what you are dealing with.

Western poison oak is the most common type of poison oak and mostly grows along the Pacific coast. It can either be a small shrub or a climbing vine.

Atlantic poison oak is more common in the southeast parts of the country, but is still a lot less common than western poison oak.

Examine the plant you suspect to be poison oak. Look at the plant closely to identify it, but never close enough to come in contact with the “poison” urushiol. Remember not to touch the plant unless you have protective gear that you can dispose of afterwards.

Check the leaves. Both types of poison oak have ragged or wavy edges, and both grow in sets of threes. Poison oak leaves are usually green in color, but they can also be yellowish, brownish, or reddish, depending on the season. Their top side has a more “glossy” appearance than the underside, which is velvetier.

Look at their stems. The stems of poison oak are greyish green and are covered in tiny hair-like structures.

Symptoms of poison oak rash

Take note that your skin will react to poison oak within the first 48 hours, and is most likely to appear around the wrists, neck, ankles, and wherever the skin is thinner. Here are symptoms of poison oak rash:

  • Stinging, itching, and minor skin irritation in the area of contact
  • A red rash that gets itchier and itchier over time. The rash looks and feels worst in the areas of direct contact
  • Large blisters that ooze liquid

If you are already allergic to poison oak, you might have a severe reaction. Here are signs that you need to contact your doctor immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing/swallowing
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Headache and nausea
  • Eye or facial swelling
  • Rashes on your face or genitals
  • Rash that covers more than 25% of your body
  • Infection, pus, and odor from blisters

How to remedy a poison oak rash at home

If you’re positive that you have come in contact with poison oak, take these following steps to help avoid getting a rash:

  • Rinse the skin immediately with cool water and soap or rubbing alcohol. Doing this within an hour of touching poison oak or poison ivy will remove the urushiol oil
  • Wash everything that has come in contact with poison oak, including clothing and tools
  • Rush to the nearest pharmacy and get an over-the-counter cream, like Ivy Block or Hollister Moisture Barrier, that will block the urushiol. Apply this within an hour of exposure

If you have already developed a poison oak rash, here are some home remedies that will help:

  • Soak in a cool water bath. Cool water helps relieve the itching and burning of the rash. You can also place a cold compress over the area for at least 15 minutes a few times a day
  • Apply cortisone or calamine lotion on the area. Put these over-the-counter creams on clean and dry skin to reduce the itching
  • Take antihistamines. Since poison oak rash is a form of allergic reaction, taking oral antihistamines is also a good option to ease the itching and inflammation of the area
  • Go the natural route and place cucumber slices on the affected area to soothe the rash
  • Aloe vera, straight from the plant, also helps to calm the rash and reduce discomfort just like it does for sunburn
  • Grind one cup of oatmeal until it’s fine and put it in a nylon stocking. Then, suspend the stocking under running water in the bathtub for a warm oatmeal bath. This will help relieve the itching and inflammation.

Enjoy nature more

Now that you know how to identify poison oak and how to deal with it, you can now better enjoy your nature hikes because it’s easier to avoid this irritating plant and its poison. And if somehow you are still exposed to it, remember to wash the area immediately and call your doctor if a severe allergic reaction arises.

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