Friday, August 24, 2012

Poison Oak, the asshole of the plant world.

Hate. Despise. Loath. Detest. Abhor.
Find me a better verb because these aren't doing it. 
{*With apologies for editorial license, this post gets helpful on paragraph 3}

This plant pisses me off, offends me. It's existence is all the proof I need that there is no God. 
The Old Testament God Yahweh was too self-obsessed to be inventive enough to plague mankind with as insipid a plant as poison oak. The New Testament God hasn't shown much interest in the human condition and is probably sending our prayers straight to the big-answering-machine-in-the-sky while vacationing with Aphrodite on the lotus flower reef world of Quonk-6 for the next millennia.

Buddha says all life is suffering, which certainly applies to poison oak. Buddha is usually right about these things. I frequently wonder what Darwin's explanation for how we ended up with a plant like poison oak would be.  Life finds a way. Life always finds a way to fill a niche. And Life doesn't care if you get a rash. It just doesn't give a shit.

Now that I've stepped on somebody's belief system, lets talk turkey. Poison Oak is a fact of life in our Southern Los Padres (SLP). It inhabits the drainages of our local mountains, sprinkled through the creek beds in a seemingly random way (ever wondered why you see so much poison oak nearer to campgrounds and popular creek areas, but not nearly as much out on the trail?). I have a theory involving coyotes and the god Ah-Puch (Boss of Mintal, or Level 9 of the Mayan underworld.)  In a region full of unpleasant plants, poison oak is the worst (to me). I'd rather get scratched six ways to Sunday than get near the stuff. You may infer from this that I've gone a few rounds with "the oak" and you'd be right. Injected steroids. Oral steroids. Prednisone psychosis syndrome. Benzodiazepines and prescription grade histamine blockers. Antibiotics. Been there probably a couple dozen times. I liken a bad poison oak exposure to an acute case of leprosy garnished with shingles.

The medical term for such an exposure goes like this: 
Contact Dermatitis secondary to Poison Oak Exposure
The patient is, at the least, experiencing a moderate rash at the exposure site. My type of reaction to a big dose of the oak is pretty bad news. I don't suffer from full anaphylaxis, but it's close. Of course I get the rash and bubbly eruptions which weep and can lead to cellulitis (skin infection), but the spread and scope of the reaction surpass what would be considered even a bad case. I get it bad. 

Somewhere out there somebody has a complete list of every suggested remedy for poison oak. There are a million suggestions, it seems. "Try Formula 409! The chemical burn will make it better!". Sure. Oatmeal compresses. Calamine Lotion. Benadryl Gel. Hot showers. Cold showers. Rubbing alcohol. Sunlight. Ice packs to freeze the epidermis (self-inflicted frost bite). Bath Gin. Vinegar. Mugwart. BBQ lighter fluid. Eye of newt. Toe of frog. I've tried 'em all. Here's what seems to work:
  • Be immune, or at least un-caucasian
  • never go outside your comfortably consumerized urban life zone
  • Know thy enemy. Become adept at recognizing poison oak. This plant is deciduous and will undergo changes from large broad leaf green to red and eventually just the vines will be exposed. The vines, in my opinion, are the worst, as they leave long scratches and resultant stripes of the stuff on exposed skin. 
  • If exposed, you have 15 minutes to get it off you before the damage is done...
  • ...Unless you use a marvelous product called Tecnu (available at most major drug store chains). Follow the directions. Scrub aggressively with this anti-oil soap within the first hour of exposure. This stuff works exceedingly well if used as directed and somehow it also helps clear already exposed areas. I have had a solid exposure greatly reduced in time and discomfort by continuing use well after exposure. I always have a small bottle of Tecnu in my pack. I use it instead of detergent to wash exposed clothing and gear. Also, I keep a spray bottle of Tecnu diluted in a bit of water in my truck. This is a good applicator for large areas or generalized exposures. This is a miracle product. Lacking Tecnu in the instance of a known exposure on the trail, try rubbing finely crushed dirt into the exposure, let the dirt stay on the skin for a while and then rinse it off. The dirt may absorb some of the poison oak oils and limit the degree of the exposure.
  • Steroids (Prednisone, Decadron, Solu-Medrol) the sooner the better. Steroids are unpleasant to take, but they are often the only thing that treat patients with a severe allergy to poison oak. Steroids have serious side effects and should be taken as infrequently as possible, and only as directed by a physician.
  • Antihistamines (Benadryl, Zyrtec, Hydroxyzine, Pepcid, Zantac) to block the itch (kind of)
  • Benzodiazepines (Valium, Ativan, Xanax) so you don't freak out, and for sleep... if that's your thing and you can persuade your doctor to prescribe it. 
  • Calamine, the trick is to apply multiple layers to the rash over the course of the day. "Paint" the exposure repeatedly until the calamine becomes a thick, absorbent layer of pink chalk. Contrary to popular belief (and marketing), I have not found Calamine to have any significant benefit in terms of the itch, it does however dry out the lesion which shortens the overall course of exposure. The active ingredient in Calamine has been added to some messy, gooey products such as Benadryl Gel. Gel products are not a good idea for a fully developed and weepy rash. They tend to trap surface bacteria which can increase the likelihood of developing cellulitis. 
  • Luke-cold showers with Ivory or castille soap, pat dry. Scalding hot water showers may feel amazing on a developed rash, orgasmic even; that is because your nervous system is being drenched in histamines. That scalding hot water may feel good on the rash, but it spreads the histamine response and with it, the itch. You can also cause serious tissue harm with the hot, hot water, setting yourself up for a skin infection when the rash leaks. 
  • Loose, cooling clothing such as hospital scrubs. A dry, cool environment helps.
  • Back in the bad old days when I drank I augmented this routine with a weeks' worth of alcohol and Vicodin. It helps, I can't deny it, but as a clean and sober individual I cannot condone staying intoxicated for a week.
  • Contrary to popular belief, you can't get poison oak from a person once they have thoroughly and completely washed the contact off. So you can't get it from somebody else's rash. Which is good because that would be gross.
Here's what doesn't work:
  • Soaps that say they are good a treating poison oak exposures. They all suck and are a waste of money. Don't be a sucker.
  • Supposed solvents such as household cleaners, mineral spirits, acetone, oven cleaner, etc... The potential for self-harm with these products far exceeds their potential benefit.
  • Poultices, magic, crystals, and prayer.
So go back up and look at the classical image of poison oak as painted in a "know your backyard plants" book. It shows a brown stem and three big, broad leaves with distinctively bumpy leaf edges. If  poison oak always looked like that it would be a lot easier to avoid, but that wouldn't be any fun then, would it? Right. Didn't think so. Read on friend, it gets worse. 

Developing a NORAD quality radar for poison oak takes the sting of experience, and it takes a good set of eyes because the stuff looks different wherever you turn. That's what I really wanted to talk about when I started writing this, the multiple morphologies of poison oak. In spring the leaves are small, clubbed, and venomously oily. In shady conditions these leaves grow rapidly into a kelly-green, broad leafed plant. These plants in the photo above grew exclusively in full sun and I've noticed that in those conditions the oak tends to stay lower to the ground, have smaller and glossier leaves, and are more venomous than their shaded neighbor. They also lose their leaves more quickly in the fall than poison oak which grows in a shadier environment. The vines, in particular, tend to "sweat" more oil in the full heat of day and, as mentioned earlier, leave nasty stripes on the skin that can be very painful when developed. Whatever you do, do not use poison oak as firewood because inhaling the smoke can lead to hospitalization and, in very bad cases, respiratory failure.

In pictures above you can see that the leaves of poison oak are broader, larger, more full and rounded. They clearly look different than the ones growing in full sunlight. These plants grew in partial to mostly shade. The shaded oak tends to be more viney, creeping up the surrounding plants and hanging from tree branches. It commonly grows in shady places you need to duck through. At face level. It lurks on that shady ledge you just put your hand on. It reaches out from under that fallen tree you ate lunch on. It looks different and acts different from the oak that grows in the sun. Morphology. Multiple shapes. Not cool. Crafty.

Shaded poison oak rusting into an early autumn
As we start rolling into fall the poison oak will fade to a bright red. The leaves will die and fall leaving only the vines. This can be big trouble for people who don't have that poison oak radar. The vines are the worst. They can leave a stripe that spreads like a comets' tail. These "stripes" are often quite painful, not just itchy, but really painful and the skin damage from a real scratch can leave serious scars. If you get poison oak avoid these vines like a zombie with ebola. They're bad news.

In developing that "radar" pay attention in the coming months to the leaves under areas you know from experience to be wooded with poison oak. The fallen leaves of our subject fade from a bright brick red to a sandy beige. As they dry the leaves shrink and become papery, light and crunchy. It's never happened to me but, knowing what an evil plant this is, I wouldn't be surprised if you could get a case of the stuff from laying on long dead poison oak leaves.

Seasonal change in poison oak from green to red.

This poison oak had pretty successfully weaseled into this patch of chaparral, spreading it's vines higher towards more light and fresh meat. 
If you are kind-hearted and empathetic you might deduce that I'm currently amid a poison oak crisis. Fortunately that is not the case (thank you if you had been wondering). No, I just happened to have had a discussion some time ago with Nico about the evident differences in the look of poison oak from one canyon to the next. All these photos were taken on the same day up Matilija Canyon. I would be interested in your observations, feel free to share.

Beware the poison oak that has shed it's leaves. It be hard to espy.


  1. I share your anguish. Going to knock on wood right after typing this, but I've had great luck in recent years with the following practices:
    1. wash up with Paradise Soad frequently.
    2. Treat my trail clothes as if they are covered in anthrax
    3. rub mugwart on skin whenever presented with the opportunity

    It should be noted that these steps are in addition to developing spider man senses for the plant as well as commando moves for avoiding it.

  2. I used to take four days to present with a rash, now it seems to be two. I seem to have half that time, so a bit more than 15 minutes, to get rid of it to avoid the weeping rash. Since it is supposed to be an oil that causes it, I go in for soap to get it off. Lots and lots of real soap, no "Dove beauty bar" or similar. Rinse it off and lather up again and again. This seems to generally keep it at bay. If no soap is available, non-polar liquids like lighter fluid, oils, WD-40, gasoline might help as they can dissolve the oil and carry it away. It doesn't sound like the best way to get rid of it, though.

    I have started to taking a loratadine tablet before going out in the hope that it will buy me more time to deal with any poison oak encountered. I have no idea if this helps or if it is even reasonable to think it will.

    Except that no one has put it in a bottle and marketed it, I do suspect that mugwort works. I'm of the grab a handful of leaves, crunch them up, get the juices all over the affected area school of thought for using it. I hear about teas or cooking up a mush of it, but these seem excessive. I took an armful of really healthy looking poison oak on day 2 of 3 days without any ill effects with two layers of sunscreen and a layer of mugwort. I have not yet tried any controlled experiments with it.

    I take it you aren't ready to try this yet?

  3. Oh, yes! A roommate left some Walgreens Anti-Itch Clear around. It says "compare to Caladryl Clear" so must be a knock off of that. This stuff is the best thing ever for treating a horrible weeping rash. It doesn't make it look any better, but it sure does feel a lot better.

  4. Hey there Valerie. Interesting that you premedicate for a possible exposure to poison oak. You use loratadine, which is marketed over the counter as Claritin and Alavert. You indicated that you questioned the efficacy of pre-dosing with a common histamine blocker. A friend of mine who is an anesthesiologist and holds a PhD in chemistry (scary smart guy) turned me on to Zyrtec, which is sold right next to your Claritin. The concept of batting down the histamine response prior to an exposure is sound. The Claritin, he said, is better for airway and hay fever symptoms while the Zyrtec seems to have a more systemic effect. I also use Pepcid or Tagamet, which block a different histamine and inflammatory system. This theory is science-fact to me. What might have proven to be a major exposure has been remarkably limited due to the pre-meds. I'm a believer in premedication (and that certainly applies to Advil). So, you were all kindsa smart, but I'd make the switch to Zyrtec.
    Also, I carry a small squeeze bottle filled with lighter fluid. The non-polar fluids you mentioned are an effective solvent for poison oak oils. A good rub ought to eliminate most PO oils. So smarty, thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Oh yeah, you (Val) mentioned Caladryl Gel. Good stuff! And great on The Itch. My beef with it is that: a.) it is a semi-occlusive gel which doesn't allow the skin or the rash to breath. Other than that, it's good stuff.
    No, it's the old-school pink stuff for me. It's messy and ugly but it does dry the oak up if you paint it on, let it dry, and repeat the process throughout the day.

  6. I was given the Claritin generic with my one round of steroids. (I know not what triggered that, there was no rash anywhere, but my face was so swollen it hurt to open my eyes.) I had no side effects from it, so it seemed like a Good Thing. For hiking, it has the side effect that my nose doesn't get a little drippy, so I like that too. Experiences with Calamine lotion as a child didn't make me a believer.

    I would say that there must be something safer than lighter fluid that's effective, but the volatile stuff is probably better for dissolution and is certainly less messy. Ever checked the material safety data sheet on that stuff? Some of it will go through the skin. Wiki tells me it might just be ethanol, in which case, carry on.

  7. I was exploring a poison oak-infested canyon once. Stupidly I wore shorts and a t-shirt that day and found it impossible to completely avoid brushing up against the PO. I got the idea of rubbing dirt all over my sweaty, exposed skin. The theory, of course, was that the layer of dirt would soak up most of the PO oils and act as a barrier against further exposure. I think it worked, because later on I suffered only the mildest case of PO, with maybe two or three small eruptions that quickly went away.

  8. I've done the same, with similar results. I think that idea comes, at least in part, from an old BSA handbook.

  9. FWIW, I've used Technu myself and while it's hard to prove a negative, I didn't get a rash after a hike with extensive exposure to PO in Big Sur.

  10. Two comments.... (1) I keep a two-quart container of gasoline in my truck. Using that on exposed areas within an hour or so does the trick. I also use it to wash PO off my trail maintenance tools. (2) Hot water is an amazing antidote (but not a preventative), as long as you can apply it. If the PO is on my forearms (not unusual, due to trailwork), I just hold the affected area under a faucet with the hot turned all the way up. 3 seconds of that, and the reaction is "turned off" for anywhere from 3 to 8 hours. Showers work, too, but are clumsier. I've done this 100's of times and never seen any evidence of spreading.

  11. Poison Oak's effect on me has steadily increased with each exposure. I thoughtlessly encouraged the exposure by not covering up when I purposefully cut down a few large vines from Douglas fur trees near Riverton, Oregon, USA. It wasn't until I felt the sap spraying on me and saw it almost immediately drip from the 3-inch cut vine. I most certainly had similar thoughts to your title here, but of my own foul invention. Each to his own, you know. Long and short is I have been using the original formula of Technu and had to get more, only to find some new Technu product with plastic "beads" in it. Rubbing this stuff feels like it has a bit of sand in it and I am quite certain the beads, as they name them, are bad for the environment -- the plastic plague. Been using Technu in cold showers for 3 days. Rash spread towards head from left arm, which is the leading arm with -- yes -- a chain saw held by a numb-chuck with short-sleeve shirt on. I just don't think sometimes. Or maybe I think am supa-human.* * * * After 3 days, I went to "Immediate" Care for a "quick" help from a doc. Got a solumedrol shot in the glutius maximus. Felt like I got kick in the GM at first but the feeling left after moving around. Also got some Vistarill for itching. Plan to take it just before bed so as to sleep. I have handled my clothing as contaminated. I change after each function during the day and shower with Technu. The towels are washed in hot water after each use, as are all my clothes. I am changing the sheets and washing them as well after each night. I am not getting crazy. But when I was a young boy, my two best friends who are brothers got covered head-to-toe with Poison Ivy. They had high temperatures, could not see. Had trouble speaking and probably breathing as well. The were quarantined from all human contact for many days. It happened in 1960, so I don't remember if hospital was visited. But my gut feeling tells me that their cheep father held out until it became a life event. He was a CIA Op. End... I am getting better finally and no time to waste. It's a big number marriage anniversary next week. When I leave this page it will to purchase more Technu at Amazon. THANK YOU for posting this reaffirming page David! Best regards, P

  12. I highly recommend Technu Extreme. Does wonders even days after exposure. Dries up weepy rashes and makes the experience a whole lot more manageable.

  13. I am highly allergic to poison oak as well. I've probably tried everything as well. Technu may clean the oils off the skin but doesn't seem to stop the reaction. Zanfel on the other hand is the best stuff ever for absolutely STOPPING the and curing the reaction. Instant relief. Not cheap. Worth every penny.

  14. I am completely immune.
    While growing up my Mother would get a bad reaction just by washing my clothes after I came out of the woods. I could even handle it and once rubbed it around my bare crotch to show some friends how immune I was. Not a smart thing to do but I've still never had a reaction to the stuff. . . Jim

  15. Just getting over my first baaaaad dose of the old PO now, and completely and utterly relate to everything you say here, especially the probably-heroin-like feeling of the hot water on the rash. What's especially bothersome is that it seems to be just an accident of evolution - some chemical that evolved for something else and just happens to totally fuck with our immune signaling. It would be more understandable if the plant was just trying to defend itself but it's not that - nature just does not care. I read somewhere that you can become immune by eating it regularly but I really do not want to be a subject in that experiment.

  16. Plantain weed leaf and jewel weed are excellent sources of de-eviling poison ivy and poison oak rash. They both grow on my property (NW Virginia), and work raw (crush and apply) or in infused oil (spray or rub).

    And remember to NEVER put these plants on your burn pile. Airborne itch is not our friend.