Poison oak can be found throughout the continental United States, but it generally grows west of the Rocky Mountains. It rarely is found in mid-western states. Its appearance can change by geographical area and season. However, Poison Oak grows as a vine or shrub and can usually be identified by small white, tan, cream, or yellow berries in the autumn. The berries can help distinguish Poison Oak from harmless but similar plants. After the leaves have fallen off, these plants can sometimes be identified by the black color on areas where the oil in the plant (urushiol) has been exposed to air.
Poison Oak does not grow well above 4000 ft, so people in the higher elevations usually don't have to worry about coming in contact with it. It does not grow in Alaska or Hawaii and is rarely found in the rainforests of Washington state and Oregon.
Contact with Poison Oak can result in a horrible itchy rash, swelling and redness - just like poison ivy! Fluid-filled blisters, hives, red lines or streaks can appear. It's a painful price to pay, especially when you might not even realize you had contact with poison oak. Unchecked, the suffering can go on for days, thanks to urushiol, the oil that puts the poison in the poison oak.
Usually allergic reactions come from direct contact with the poison oak vine or shrub, but secondary exposure can also cause allergic reactions. Secondary exposures come from touching something that was contaminated by urushiol such as pet fur, gardening tools, clothes. However, it is not passed from person to person, even if there's contact with the affected area or fluid in the blister. That is because the first person has already absorbed the urushiol into his or her skin.
How to Relieve the Symptoms
If you realize you've been in contact with poison oak, wash the area with soap and water as soon as possible, hopefully within 10 - 15 minutes. A few people seem to be able to avoid symptoms by washing exposed areas as late as two to three hours after exposure. However, since reactions may not appear until eight to forty-eight hours after the incident, it's often too late to wash it off if the person doesn't realize he was exposed.
Also wash any clothes that might have had contact with poison oak, directly or indirectly. Hard surfaces such as tools, handles, counter tops should be wiped with rubbing alcohol if there's any possibility they were contaminated.
Symptoms can often be reduced by pressing wet compresses against the rash or soaking in cool water. It is important to trim fingernails and resist the desire to scratch as that can spread the bacteria. Scratching can also lead to infections which can create more severe complications. Antihistamines, Calamine Lotion or corticosteroid lotions may alleviate some of the allergic reactions. One of the keys to relief is to topically neutralize the acidity of the urushiol that penetrated the skin.
Many people are reporting relief from a recently patented product called Miracle Mist Plus. Although sold only as an all-natural cosmetic and not released yet to make medical claims, Miracle Mist Plus Skin Spray has a 9.0 alkaline pH. Apparently it works by neutralizing the acid environment of the affected area. It is non steroidal, safe for any age and there's no risk of overuse. According to Dr. John Young, the MD who formulated and patented it, once the acidity in a wound bed has been normalized, healing can begin. Users report that it is soothing and effective on many skin issues, including skin reactions to poison oak. Another added benefit is that the gentle spray eliminates the need to touch the sensitive areas.
It must be noted, however, that severe cases of poison oak should be seen by a physician immediately. Severe reactions from urushiol can include swelling of the face, mouth, neck, genitals, eyelids or difficulty breathing or extensive areas of blisters that ooze large amounts of fluid. In those cases, a physician will likely administer a steroid shot for quick relief. Despite the reputed negative side effects of steroids, the critical nature of extreme allergic reactions almost always overrides those concerns.
The best antidote for poison oak is to avoid it. If you find it on your property, put on a long sleeved shirt, long pants and vinyl gloves before attempting to remove it. Then take a shower and wash those clothes immediately afterwards. Or….
Rent a goat. Goats love to eat poison oak and poison ivy and it doesn't seem to cause any adverse effects in them.
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