It starts innocently enough. You chop down a scraggly shrub while out cutting line. Then, your arms and legs start tingling and turn red. Before you know it they’re covered with an itchy rash. Much too late you realize that shrub/tree was actually poison oak.
Finding poison oak is easy in the United States, where it grows virtually everywhere except for Alaska, Hawaii, and some desert areas of the southwest. It also grows in parts of Canada, Mexico, and Asia.
In the northern and western parts of the United States and Canada, poison oak usually grows as a shrub. It’s generally found on the edges of woods, fields, beaches, and streams, but can turn up almost anywhere — even in a park or your flowerbeds.
Look, But Don’t Touch
“Leaflets three, let it be” is catchy and sound advice — poison oak is easy to identify by its clusters of three pointed leaves. Usually the middle leaf is on a longer stalk than the two side leaves. Leaves can range from about a third of an inch to more than three inches long, and can have smooth edges or be serrated like a knife.
In the spring poison ivy leaves can have a reddish tint. The leaves turn green in summer and various shades of red, yellow, or orange in the fall.
Urushiol is tenacious. It’ll stick to almost everything — your clothes and shoes, camping and gardening equipment, even your pets’ or horses’ coats. And it’s in virtually every part of the plant; leaves, stems, even the roots. Brushing against a winter-bared branches can still cause a nasty rash.
Remedies for the Rash
If you know you’re heading into a poison oak stronghold, prepare by covering as much of your skin as possible. Long-sleeved shirts, pants, hats, heavy gloves, socks, and closed-toe shoes make good defenses.
Encourage rinsing of the skin with cool, soapy water, rubbing alcohol or dish soap within about an hour of touching poison oak may remove the urushiol and help avoid a rash — or at least make it less severe.
You’ll also need to encourage to wash anything else that came in contact with the plant. Urushiol can remain potent for years, so skipping the cleanup could net a rash at a later point. Wash bootlaces, exchange gloves, etc.
If a firefighter does develop a poison oak rash, expect it to take one to three weeks to clear up. Water can help ease the itching and burning. Washing frequently with Tecnu or Zanfel if available.
Over-the-counter cortisone creams and calamine lotion can help ease some of the itchiness of a poison oak rash. Follow the label directions when applying. Make sure to wash and dry the area before reapplying. Other products that may help with itching are aloe vera gel, a three-to-one baking soda/water paste applied to the skin.
Over-the-counter antihistamines such as loratadine (Claritin) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can help ease the itching and inflammation too. Benadryl has the added effect of making some people sleepy, which should not be taken when out on the fireline. Do not apply an antihistamine cream to your rash, though. It can actually make the itching worse.
If the rash is widespread, on the patients face or genitals, or has caused lots of blisters, you may want to contact the nurse on the Medical Unit or the nearest clinic. They’ll be able to give a steroid to help ease the itching and inflammation. Depending on the condition of the rash, the patient may be given steroid pills, a shot, or topical preparations like gels, ointments, or creams. If blisters break open, the patient can develop a bacterial infection, so keep them covered and clean.
If you have any questions about the following symptoms a visit to the nearest emergency room might be best:
Stay safe & hydrated! And remember to shower when you can.