It is the season of poison oak in the Rogue Valley.
More than half the population has an allergic reaction to the three plants aptly named poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. This allergic reaction is in the form of a skin condition medically referred to as contact dermatitis–what regular people call a rash, complete with oozing blisters and terrible itching. This skin condition takes about two weeks to run its course; however, a visit to the doctor is in order if you have a severe case or develop it in sensitive areas such as the face.
This allergic skin condition is caused by a substance called urushiol oil, a compound found in many plants in the Cashew family (Anacardiaceae)-including poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac–and of course, the family’s namesake, cashews. It is caused solely by contact with urushiol oil from the plant, and not spread by scratching or contact with oozing blisters. Quick action is required upon contact with poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. It doesn’t take long for urushiol oil to penetrate the skin and cause a rash, followed by blisters and itching to appear on the skin.
The list of “treatments” for poison oak is bewildering and in some cases preposterous. Just about every conceivable substance has been tried for topical therapy, from morphine and kerosene to buttermilk and gunpowder. Most authorities agree that lotions, creams and sprays containing anti-inflammatory corticosteroids (hydrocortisones) are the most effective agents to relieve painful, itching rashes. Serious outbreaks may require medical attention and hospitalization. Ideally the best therapy when exposed to poison oak is to wash the contaminated areas thoroughly. The problem is that most ordinary bath soaps have little effect on removing the resinous sap. Have you ever tried removing pine pitch from your arm with facial soap? In fact, added moisturizers and oils in the soap together with brisk rubbing may even spread the urushiol, increasing the area of allergic response. Strong laundry soaps, such as Fels Naptha, may also spread the allergen and be harsh on sensitive skin. Some books still recommend calamine lotion for mild cases.
Please bear in mind, if you find poison oak or any of these irritating plants on your property, Roundup is not the product to use to get rid of it. Sure, it works, but there is strong science behind a recently released theory that it is linked to gene damage, nerve damage and birth defects. White vinegar in a garden sprayer will turn your poison oak to toast quickly and much more safely.