The poison oak rash is a result of an allergic reaction to the stems or leaves of a poison oak plant. This leafy shrub is capable of growing up to 6 feet tall and often grows as a climbing vine in shady areas. The leaves of the poison oak consist of 3 separate leaflets, although there are some plants that have up to 9 leaflets, where each leaf is about 4 inches long.
During spring, the leaves are either green or red. The plant usually produces tiny flowers in white, green, or yellow shades. In summer, the leaves turn green and the plant produces berries. During the late summer, its leaves become red and eventually changes to the orange color.
Just like the poison sumac and poison ivy, the poison oak plant releases oil known as the Urushiol once it is damaged. If you end up accidentally touching the plant, this allergen gets absorbed by the skin and thus, the poison oak rash develops.
The Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of California has noted that only about 15 to 20 percent of the population is not allergic to the poison oak plant. To prevent the rash, it’s important that you learn how to recognize the plant so you can immediately avoid touching it.
If you are allergic to the poison oak, the symptoms will immediately show up within 6 days after the exposure. A lot of times, you’ll notice the rashes during the first 1-2 days.
The most obvious symptom of the allergic reaction to the poison oak is skin rash, also known as dermatitis. At first, you’ll notice a stinging sensation in your skin, accompanied with itchiness and skin irritation. Red rashes will soon break out and the affected area will become even itchier. The rashes will eventually get worse in those areas that have gotten in direct contact with the plant. Bumps will start to form and eventually, it will develop into large blisters that have liquid inside. In only a few days, the blisters will start to dry up and develop into a crust.
The poison oak rash will most likely appear in the following areas of your body: neck, ankles, and wrists, where the skin is often thinner. It will usually reach its peak a week after the exposure and this will last between 5 and 12 days. In rare cases, the rashes could last up to a month and even more.
Life Threatening Signs of Allergic Reactions
If you are allergic to something, your allergic reaction will have the potential to become even stronger every time you expose yourself to the allergen.
Below are some of the signs of severe allergic reaction:
- Difficulty in breathing
- Eye or facial swelling
- Rashes on your face, eyes, genitals, or lips.
- Rashes that will cover more than 25% of your body
Signs of infection, like yellow fluid or pus that’s leaking out of the blisters, or blisters that produces an odor
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Trouble swallowing
Some of these symptoms can become life-threatening and would require immediate attention.
How It Spreads
The poison ivy plant produces oil known as the Urushiol and this is what causes rashes in almost 85% of those who have gotten in contact with the plant.
The rashes are not contagious since it’s a reaction of the skin to the oil. But the oil could spread to others and trigger a reaction as well. Urushiol is a stubborn substance and will stick to almost anything – your clothes, shoes, gardening tools, etc.
It could eventually get into your hands and any object you ended up touching, which spread to other people. The oil is found in almost every part of the poison ivy plant, from the leaves to the stems and even roots.
How to Spot the Plants
The Poison ivy, sumac, or oak are all made from compound leaves. These are multiple leaflets, which make up a single leaf. The best way to distinguish these plants is to count the number of leaflets. Furthermore, you must also take notice that waxy and dull sheen of the plant. The Urushiol is what’s causing the waxy sheen of the plant and this is what would trigger the allergic reaction.
Poison Ivy. You sure have heard of the famous quote, “leaves of 3, let it be”. However, this quote is not always helpful since a lot of plants that have three leaves will normally fall in that direction and will not trigger any reaction. Specifically, each of the three leaflets comes with jagged edges that will come to a point.
The eastern poison ivy has a rope-like vine that can be found mainly at the East Coast and in the Midwest, as well as in some Western and Southern states. The Western poison ivy grows almost anywhere in the US except in California and some other states in the Southeastern region. Both these plants are capable of producing green or yellow flowers. Sometimes, they produce berries in yellow or amber color. Their leaves are shiny green and could change to orangey red and some hints of yellow when fall comes.
Poison Oak. This is another rash-causing plant that belongs under the category of ‘leaves of 3” and is a bit tricky to identify. It’s because the plant tends to camouflage itself with some other plants on its surrounding. The edges of its leaflets are more tooth-like when compared to the poison ivy and it produces berries in the clusters of white or green yellow. Furthermore, these plants grow into a vine or low shrub, which matches the colors of some other foliage. Poison oak is not really as widespread as the poison ivy and is commonly found at the West Coast or in the Southeastern states.
Poison Sumac. Compared to poison oak and poison ivy, the poison sumac is a bit different. Poison sumac has a fern-like appearance and produces 7 to 13 leaflets in a stem of a reddish color. The green leaflets are oval in shape and a pointy top tends to appear in pairs at its stem.
These shrubs are common in swamps and bogs and may produce berries that are cream-colored or pale yellow. The berries tend to change colors depending on the season. Furthermore, the poison sumac can be found in almost the entire east coast in the US, some parts of Midwest and in some southern states.
Alaska and Hawaii are the only states that do not have these poisonous shrubs. And although poison sumac is common in swamps and bogs, the oak and ivy could be found pretty much anywhere, including in your backyard and even at the side of the road.
The Rash and How to Treat It
If your child has gotten in contact with any of the plants above, one thing that will be the same would be the rash. For those who live in places where all three plants are together and you ended up getting in contact with all three plants, the rashes will be indistinguishable. It is because it’s the oil that triggers rashes in all three plants and if someone brushes up against any of them, the oil will brush up into the skin and thus, the allergic reaction will be triggered in the form of blistery and itchy rashes.
Small rashes resulting from the direct contact of these plants can be possibly treated at home through wet compresses and applying calamine lotion. This should help ease the itchiness of the rash. But you must make sure to clean the exposed area with lukewarm water and soap as soon as possible in order to completely wash the oil. If rashes will soon develop, you’ll normally see these rashes within 24 to 48 hours from the exposure. Medications like antihistamines can be helpful in treating the itchiness, but it is best to take your child to a pediatrician for further consultation and treatment.
If your child has a severe allergic reaction to these plants, he or she could suffer from life-threatening symptoms, such as anaphylaxis and this would require immediate attention.
How to Get Rid of the Plants
You are probably thinking about burning these plants, but this is not the best solution because burning them will produce a smoke that could trigger an allergic respiratory problem once inhaled. For the best removal methods, you will have a couple of options. First, you can call professionals who specialize in the removal of these dangerous plants. They are usually equipped with tools and protective gear that can safely remove these plants from your yard. The second option will require that you do the job yourself but this could mean putting yourself in close contact with these dangerous plants.
There are also herbicides that could potentially kill these plants but take note that applying these herbicides will also mean killing the other plants nearby. There is also a possibility that the plants will grow once again especially if their roots were left intact.
How to Avoid Poison Oak
Identifying the poison oak is not easy due to the fact that its appearance has the tendency to change depending on the time of the year and the area where it grows. During summer, spring, or fall, the best way to identify the poison oak would be to look for the three leaflets where the central stalk is usually longer than the stalks of the other leaflets.
Although the leaflets usually appear in groups of three, the leaves are occasionally in 5, 7, and 9 leaflets. The leaves of the poison oak are arranged alternately along its stem. Each of the leaflets is about 4 inches long and smooth featuring lobed or toothed edge. This diversity in the size and shape of the leaves is where the term “diversilobum” came from, which is the plant’s scientific term. The leaves are either dull or glossy and sometimes, they are a bit hairy especially the leaves at the lower surface.
The poison oak leaves are often confused with the real Oak leaves since they tend to resemble a lot. But the real oak leaves don’t grow in groups. Another plant that’s commonly confused with the poison oak is the wild blackberry. The best way to distinguish them is to check the presence of thorns because wild blackberry has thorns in them. Furthermore, the wild blackberry produces berries that are edible and easily distinguishable during summer, while the poison oak produces only a bunch of tiny cream-colored or white berries.
The poison oak tends to grow in varying forms, depending on the environment and the location. In the open areas that are exposed directly to full sunlight, the poison oak tends to form a dense and leafy shrub that’s around 1 to 6 feet tall. When the plants are in the shaded areas, such as in the coastal areas of redwoods, they tend to grow individually or as groups of stalks, and sometimes as a climbing vine. The vines can grow to more than 100 feet long and its trunk is usually up to 8 inches in diameter.
Unless you’re on the trails of Northern California, it’s not uncommon to see several variations of the poison oak in only one day. For instance, Point Reyes is one of those places where you get to see Poison oak shrubs at the exposed areas along the coast, as well as stalks and vines at the dense forest of the coastal hills. Therefore, you should not only avoid those plants growing in the ground but the vines that are hanging down from the trees as well!
The appearance of the poison oak has also a tendency to change depending on the season. During spring, tiny leaves that are crimson and rust colored would emerge and would quickly become vibrant green. Furthermore, during the spring, the poison oak tends to produce small, flowers in white green color. During summer the leaves are in vibrant green and could eventually get glossy or dull. When fall comes, the leaves will turn orange and red and eventually develops a brownish floor before falling to the ground.
It is more difficult to identify the poison oak during winter when its vines and stalks are usually bare. In this case, the best way to identify the plant is through the presence of those brown leaves that fell in the ground. Furthermore, branching of the poison oak stalks is still regular, unlike the haphazard manner in which the other shrubs would branch out. The best distinguishing factor of the poison is the hairy areal roots that attach the shrubs to the tree.
In places like Northern California, you’ll most likely find these vines growing up into the tree trunks in the forest. And just because the plants don’t have leaves does not really mean that it’s harmless. Each and every part of the plant has the Urushiol that is responsible for the allergic reaction. As a matter of fact, some of the most severe reactions to the poison oak are due to the exposure to oak stalks.
There are Urushiol-blocking creams that are made from an ingredient known as the bentoquatam and the cream reduces your risk of developing the rashes once you end up accidentally touching the oak. One of the most popular of these creams is the IvyBlock, although this cream has now been discontinued in the market. The cream is usually applied to the skin before exposure to the poison oak. It could help in somehow preventing the rashes, although it’s not really 100 percent effective.
In a study done at the Duke University Medical Center, 7 different creams were studied to evaluate their effectiveness against the Toxicodendron rashes that were experimentally produced.
The result of the rash reduction showed the following:
- Dermofilm – 13%
- Hollister Moisture Barrier – 52%
- Hydropel – 48%
- Ivy Shield – 22%
- Shield Skin – 13%
- Stokogard – 59%
- Uniderm – 9%
Washing After Exposure to Poison Oak
If you end up getting in contact with the poison oak, it’s extremely necessary to wash the affected area of your skin immediately. Time is essence when it comes to treating the rashes since 50% of the Urushiol could get absorbed by the skin in as little as 10 min. Washing the area in the first few hours of exposure can somehow help to minimize the severity of the rashes.
The Urushiol can also be removed by wiping the skin with alcohol or by rubbing it with alcohol wipes. Degreasing soap and detergent can also help along with cool or lukewarm water. Avoid using hot water in washing the skin as this could open the pores, which makes it possible for the oil to get into the skin. After washing with soap or alcohol, try to avoid exposure within that day because these products may also remove the protective oil of the skin, which makes it difficult to protect your skin against the Urushiol.
Shoes, clothing, and other items that might have gotten in contact with the Urushiol must be thoroughly washed with warm water and soap. Remember that if the oil is not removed thoroughly, it could remain potent even for years. A study done in 1941 has found that the Urushiol that was extracted from a poison ivy plant is still potent even after it’s kept in a jar for five years.
Therefore, if you will leave your contaminated clothes unwashed, it could still make you develop rashes even a year later. You may not be aware but the Urushiol could be hiding somewhere in your car after you accidentally run over the plant. Therefore, it may be best to wash your hands properly after you get in contact with your car. Also, consider placing a towel on your seat before you get into your car and start driving. Make sure you throw that towel away or wash immediately after using.
A lot of people believe that Tecnu is the most effective product to use in removing Urushiol. In fact, its effectiveness has been confirmed by a study done at the University of Missouri. It was compared with other dishwashing products, such as Goop and Dial. The authors concluded that Tecnu is 70% more capable of removing the Urushiol, while Goop and Dial is 61.8% and 56.4% respectively. The Dawn dishwashing detergent has also shown good results when it comes to removing Urushiol.
A lot of times, the poison oak rashes can simply be remedied at home. If you believe that you have exposed yourself to the poison oak, it’s important to take your clothing immediately. Wash your clothes and all other things that you believe have gotten in contact with the plant. The oil that has gotten in contact with your clothes could make you develop the rashes.
Furthermore, make sure you shower and wash your body well with soap and lukewarm water. Pay close attention to your fingernails, hands, and anything that may have gotten in touch with the plant.
The rashes could get very itchy but avoid scratching as this could possibly infect your skin. Touching the rashes may also lead to infection. Instead, take shower or lukewarm bath regularly. This can somehow ease the itchiness.
OTC remedies such as hydrocortisone cream and calamine lotion may help to temporarily ease the itch. You may also apply cool compress on the itchy patches to ease the itch. Antihistamine medications may also help treat the itchiness. If the symptoms don’t improve after ten days since you get into contact with the poison oak, you better see your doctor immediately. Your doctor will diagnose the rashes and prescribe the proper treatment.
Below are some remedies that can somehow help to relieve the symptoms.
Rubbing Alcohol. Rubbing alcohol can greatly help in effectively removing the presence of Urushiol in your skin and this can somehow help minimize the feeling of discomfort. You must apply the alcohol immediately after contact with the plant, especially during the first 10 minutes. Thus, if you plan on hiking or going camping in the woods, it may be best to carry some alcohol wipes with you.
The FDA has advised the public that Urushiol tends to remain on the surface of most items that it has gotten into contact with for up to several years unless it’s treated with water or rubbing alcohol.
Shower or Bathe. Wash the affected area of your skin thoroughly, including the fingernails. Use plain lukewarm water and plain soap when washing to ensure that the oil is removed. Although water can be used in washing, it may be more effective to use the rubbing alcohol first before showering or bathing.
Health experts believe that showering within 60 min of exposure can help to minimize the spread and limit the severity of the rashes. Make sure you wash anything that has gotten into contact with the poison oak plant and makes sure you wear rubber gloves when doing so.
Cold Compress. Cool and wet compress may also help to reduce the inflammation and itchiness. To prepare a compress, soak a clean washcloth with cold water. Wring the excess water off and apply to the affected skin for up to 30 min. Repeat the process several times every day.
Some people may also find relief in soaking the compress with an astringent to further minimize the itchiness and swelling. Some good examples of astringent are apple cider vinegar, aluminum acetate, and chilled black tea.
Resist Scratching the Skin. Scratching your rashes must be avoided at all cost as this could possibly infect your skin. This may also burst the blisters, which could greatly infect your skin.
Never touch the blisters that have opened out since the wound can help to provide protection and reduce the possibility of infection. Your fingernails may also contain some traces of Urushiol and the act of scratching your skin could further transmit the oil into your skin leading to the severity of the rashes.
Topical Lotions and Creams. There are many lotions that can help to relieve the symptoms of poison oak rashes. They can be obtained over the counter. For instance, calamine lotion and hydrocortisone creams are two of the most effective products used in treating the swelling and itchiness of the poison oak rashes.
The Food and Drug Administration has advised that products containing zinc carbonate, zinc acetate, and zinc oxide can help to treat the oozing resulting from poison ivy. Users must always follow the directions on the label when using these products.
Oral Antihistamines. Oral antihistamines can also be used to help lessen the allergic reactions brought about by the poison oak. These medications also help in reducing the rashes and itchiness. One example is the Diphenhydramine. It helps to minimize the allergic reactions, which also reduces the feeling of itchiness. Benadryl is also a good example and also helps people to sleep well despite the itch. Do not ever apply the antihistamine directly to the rashes in the skin as this could make the itching worse.
Oatmeal Bath. Studies show that oatmeal contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that could help to treat several inflammatory skin conditions. By adding oatmeal to your lukewarm bath, the itchiness can be further relieved.
Bentonite Clay. The Bentonite clay is a type of natural clay that’s used in a wide variety of beauty products and some personal care products. A lot of people have reported relief in using the clay and water to treat their rashes.
Researches suggest that using the modified version of the Bentonite clay can help to prevent and reduce the allergic contact dermatitis brought about by the poison oak and poison ivy plants.
Baking Soda. Also called the sodium bicarbonate, the baking soda is a salt that’s mainly used in the cooking. However, this substance is also used as a home remedy and for treating a wide variety of ailments including the poison oak rashes.
Simply add a cup of the baking soda in a tub before soaking your body and this should somehow help to relieve the rashes.
Aside from the home-based and natural remedies for poison ivy, there are also plenty of medications that can help to relieve the symptoms of poison oak rashes. Some doctors would prescribe steroids, like the prednisone, in treating the inflammation and itchiness.
Below are some of the steroid medications that are used in treating the rashes:
Antibiotics might sometimes be necessary if the infection starts to develop as a result of severe scratching and picking at the blisters.
Other Things to Keep in Mind
Urushiol can be contagious and you could suffer from allergic reaction just by simply touching the plant and those objects that have been exposed to the oil. The rashes are not contagious and there’s no oil in the fluid of the blisters so you will not end up spreading the oil if the blister fluid has gotten in contact with some other parts of your body. The rash will not spread from one person to another.
Poison Ivy Rash Prevention
Remember that it’s much easier to prevent the ivy dermatitis than treating it. Recognizing the presence of the plant and avoiding it is the best way to prevent the rashes. The following tips can also help:
Wear Protective Clothing. Always cover up when going outdoors especially in areas where the poison ivy is most likely to grow. Wear thick PVC gloves or other types of gardening gloves in order to prevent the oil from penetrating into the skin.
Wear Barrier Substances. Products that contain bentoquatam can also help to eliminate the symptoms of poison ivy for as long as it’s applied before exposure to the oil. These substances should be washed immediately in only a few hours of exposure.
Wash Anything That Gets into Contact with the Poison Ivy. The oil coming from the poison ivy could linger even for many years to come. Anything that gets into contact with the oil should be washed thoroughly using water and soap in order to avoid it getting into contact with the skin and causing the rashes to develop.
Remove the Poison Ivy in Your Garden. It’s dangerous to remove the plant on your own so it’s a good idea to contact a professional to get the plants removed.
Prepare a Poison Ivy Kit . Keep poison ivy treatments on hand, including water bottles and soap, as well as rubbing alcohol. This is to ensure a speedy response in the event of poison ivy exposure.
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