Sneaky Oak of Poison

April 29, 2012

Four weeks ago my husband, daughter and I went off for a beautiful four mile hike with spectacular views of the bay and valley. On the way we were met with a number of muddy trail dips requiring skirting around the edges, and in among the young Poison Oak plants. We thought were were very careful, and sure enough: No outbreaks following. Yea, us!

Fast forward two weeks and I’m getting ready for a business trip to Texas. I noticed a bite on my ankle. Nothing worrisome — perhaps a stray flea or small spider. Three days later, in Texas, I think a mosquito bites me on the thigh, right through my jeans. Odd, but that’s what it looked and felt like. Two days after that both my ankle and thigh areas are covered in angry red bumps that eventually blister and it starts to spread. Whoa, what the heck?!?

A visit to my doctor upon my return elicits her comment that “it sure looks like poison oak” — but it had been so long since exposure, and what’s with the thigh — I had long pants on the hike and the plants were ground level. We dismissed it and took a culture for some kind of bacterial infection. Results by the end of the week were negative, my leg was worse, and it was still spreading, now on the other ankle as well! Add to this a swollen ankle and puffy lymph nodes, and both my doctor and I are concerned. A short course of steroids is prescribed.

Then a phone conversation with a good friend prompted some online research about Poison Oak. I wondered how long the urushiol oil stays on surfaces — you see I had taken my hiking boots and pants to me with Texas and it dawned on me that perhaps I had a latent exposure through contact with the outside of these items. Here is what I learned from the sites I found:

  1. If you’ve never been exposed to Poison Oak before, it can be 5-15 days before you experience the results. Subsequent exposures can bring on the effects much faster.
  2. Urushiol oil can stay active on surfaces, like shoes, for years!
  3. Length of exposure to the oil and the amount of oil and time of exposure can all combine to create the effect that the “infection” is spreading, when in fact the body is just reacting “in real time” to the initial exposure.
  4. You can be immune, then not immune, then immune again to the oil.
  5. Steroids work really, really well to stop the itching!
  6. I am very, very sensitive to Poison Oak!

I’ve been hiking around here for years, in and around the stuff and have never, ever had even a bump. Perhaps I am one of those who were “immune” for awhile — but no any longer!

Lessons learned:

  1. Don’t get near it.
  2. Take a shower after every hike where you are exposed (cold water! — hot water can cause the oil to penetrate the skin).
  3. Immediately wash clothes and rinse off the shoes or boots, hiking sticks and dog!
  4. When a bite or rash starts spreading, don’t delay treatment.

Here are a couple of good sites for more info, but I hope you never have to deal with it!





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