Poison Oak - Russell Spurlock

Poison Oak
Ever hear the one about the unhappy camper who happened to pick the wrong leaf
to wipe with when using the great outdoor latrine. This always was a friend, who the
tellers’ teacher’s cousin’s uncle swore this happened to. Let’s hope for the sake of the
camper this myth never made it out of the city. Poison oak does grow like a weed around
here though (because it is). And for most of us we’re hypersensitive to this oil when it
lands on our skin. So for today let’s go over this itchy annoyance that can almost make
you wish you stayed in the urban jungle.
Poison ivy, poison oak and sumac all contain the same secret ingredient, urushiol.
Urushiol comes from a Japanese word meaning lacquer, which seems appropriate for the
oil inside of the plant. To get the oil on your skin the leaves of the plant have to be
crushed or cut in some way. Tromping through the forest can be enough. And urushiol
has a shelf life that could compete with Twinkies. In a dry environment this oil can
remain allergenic for years. So if some oil got on your tent from last years camping trip,
your unfriendly guest is going camping with you again. This is why it’s important to
wash your gear. And just about how much is needed for a reaction? About a billionth of
a gram is all it takes. Translation: just a tiny bit more than nothing.
About 10 lucky percent of us are not allergic to urushiol. While they are now
sitting pretty with those around them in envy, that can change. Even if you’ve been
exposed to poison oak 100 times it might be your 101st that could be the straw that breaks
the camels back. And your body can be more or less sensitive from season to season.
The rash usually shows up within a day or two after exposure. It may look like
it’s spreading. But after you’ve washed up it won’t spread on you or anyone else for that
matter. The growing rash really just shows how your skin absorbs the oil at different
To keep urushiol at bay, wash up as quickly as you can. A bar of Tecnu soap can
really be a lifesaver here. It takes about an hour to baste into your skin so try to beat the
clock. And use cool water to shower with, warm water opens your pours and invites the
poison in. Also, keep an eye on your faithful sidekick Fido. After your dog has taken a
stroll, he picks up some hitchhiking oil on his fir. Won’t affect Fido. But it can get on
you and he can drizzle it on your furniture.
If you think you’ve had an encounter of the three-leaf kind, here’s what to do.
After the blisters have begun to bubble up and you have soaped up all you can. It’s time
for damage control. You don’t need mom around to remind you calamine lotion can
sooth. Cool baths and compresses are also great. And speaking of tubs, soak in some
oats. Yes oatmeal can do wonders. Baking soda paste can also relive the itch.
Long after the rash is gone the memory of it will stay a sore spot. Hopefully this
memory will serve you, and you’ll keep this oil always at arm’s distance away. And
remember the trusty old saying ‘leaves of three, let it be’.