Poison oak is one of those plants that are poisonous to us. Poisoning occurs when the plant’s oil contacts the skin after the leaves are broken or through some other damage to the plant.
The plant can be alive, but even dead leaves, stems, or roots contain the oil. The oil can even be inhaled if the plants are burnt.
Indirect contact is also possible because the oil can get onto clothes or be carried on a dog’s coat.
The poisonous effect of the oil is to trigger the body’s immune system, and this is what brings up the skin rash.
Most people, but not all, show an allergy to the oil, which doctors call allergic contact dermatitis. Anyone who does get the rash will usually see it between half a day and 3 days after contact with the plant oil.
How to identify a poison oak rash: Anyone with contact dermatitis should be able to relate a skin rash in one area to some recent contact with plants if it is due to poison oak. The rash also itches.
It is not until a second contact with the oil that people who are sensitive get the allergic skin reaction.
The immune system learns to recognize the oil from the first occasion and then reacts to it aggressively on future contact.
Contact can be avoided by knowing something about poisonous plants, whether they be poison oak, poison ivy, or poison sumac. But, first, what is the skin reaction like?
How the poison oak rash appears: A poison oak rash appears where the contact with the oil happened. The irritation varies by area affected, but: Poison oak can cause itchy, red rashes that may feature blisters and swelling.
Always involves intensely itchy, red skin
Can be blistered, and often shows along multiple streaks in the area of skin brushed by the oil
May produce swelling, giving hives, which are raised areas of skin similar to those brought up by stinging nettles
If there is a bigger area affected by the rash, or it is in a place that makes activities difficult, the problem is more serious. This is most commonly the case for people who are often exposed to the plants, such as those working where poison ivy grows.
The rash should quickly settle down and begin healing. It can take a few weeks for a poison oak rash to clear up fully.
The rash itself cannot be spread around the body or between people. Outdoor workers and others need to be careful to avoid spreading the oil and causing the reaction in other people, however. This can happen as the poison oak oil can be transferred from protective gear, clothes, and tools.
Any swelling beyond small hives in the area affected needs attention. For anyone who has a wider reaction, it is important to get medical help.
Severe allergy: People should call for immediate medical help or go to an emergency room straight away if any reaction causes these signs of severe allergy:
Swelling around the eyes, face, lips, or tongue
Any effect at all on swallowing or breathing
A strong feeling of being unwell
What does poison oak look like?: Poison oak is a woody shrub if it gets full sun, or a climbing vine in the shade of woods.
It is mostly found in forests and woodlands, fields, or open land with shrubby areas. It can also thrive at roadsides and on abandoned land.
Poison oak is native to the western United States and can be seen anywhere across North America, except Alaska. It is a bigger problem in the coastal regions of the southeast and the west.
There are many different varieties of poison oak trees: Knowing the actual plant itself is tricky because individual poison oaks come in different forms. However, there are key facts to remember.
Poison oak has leaves that usually come in threes. Sometimes, there are five, seven, or nine leaves in a group. These leaves are absent in winter. Other keys to identifying poison oak are:
Poison oak does not look like true oak - true oak has single leaves that do not group together in patterns of odd numbers
Has leaf groups, usually in threes, that alternate along each side of the stems
This means it has only one group of leaves coming off at one point on a stem, and then another on the opposite side of the stem further up - and so on
The leaves can be glossy or dull, and sometimes hairy underneath. Poison oaks are varied:
The leaves come in different sizes on various plants - 1 to 4 inches long
The leaves in each of the groupings on the stems are similar in size, although the middle leaf is often longer
Leaf edges can be toothed or lobed
Poison oak is similar to many other trees that lose their leaves for winter after changing color through oranges and reds.
Prevention and treatment of poison oak rash: The easiest advice for avoiding poison oak and the nasty rash it can cause is to:
Know where the plants are and avoid them
Know that the oil is released by damage to the plant
For unknown plants, look out for the leaf-group pattern of poison oak
If poison oak sets off an allergic reaction, a skin rash will appear some time after contact. The rash can appear anywhere from later on the same day to up to 96 hours later.
People should remember the way the rash probably looks, and that poison oak rashes should stay in the area affected.
The allergic rash should start to settle down. People can nurse the rash by:
Staying away from the poison oak and keeping the rash from getting irritated or infected by anything else
Not scratching at the itch as this can cause more damage, itchiness, pain, and infection
Simple, clean, warm water bathing, followed by clean, dry, gentle patting or natural drying helps
Using emollient cream to protect the skin from losing moisture and keep the skin’s barrier function
Over-the-counter medications like diphenhydramine can ease the itchiness. However, it can also make people drowsy, so it should not be taken before operating heavy machinery or driving
The rash should improve into the 2-3 weeks or more that it takes to go away fully. People should see a doctor if any symptoms get worse.
People whose work can put them at a higher risk of contact with poison oak oil need to take measures to protect themselves. Employers must also help.