My mortal enemy is not a man. Nor is it a beast, a virus, an addiction, or a female secret agent. It's a plant. A stupid, fucking, plant. Poison oak, poison ivy, and/or poison sumac (depending on where you live) is pure, insidious evil. Oh, and it's going to be extra bad this year.
I went for a week-long camping trip somewhere in the Northwest a couple weeks ago. I am good at spotting poison oak. I was careful and took every precaution, and yet, if you saw my ankle you'd think I was a burn-victim. God damn, I hate this stuff.
What Is It?
It's a leafy plant. That's all. But it's incredibly resilient and it can take many forms, from a tiny, inch-tall sprout, to a gigantic, 10-foot tall bush. It can attach to trees and hang down into paths. If it always looked like the photo above it'd be easy to spot, but it doesn't. Sometimes the leaves are green, sometimes yellow. Sometimes there are no leaves at all, and the sticks are just as bad as the leaves.
What Hurts You?
The toxin in poison oak/ivy/sumac is an oil called urushiol. It is one of the most common allergies in humans, with as many as 85 percent of us being reactive. The oil is on the leaves (that's what makes them shiny), the stems, the branches, even the roots. If you get some in your yard, you can't just burn it because the oil becomes airborne in the smoke, and inhaling it can kill you mighty quick.
What's It Do?
Contact with the skin causes a rash. But we're not talking about a little rash that's kinda itchy and goes away in a few days. No. If you're reactive, rashes are thick and may develop hundreds of blisters. These blisters may break and weep yellow goo, then heal, then break again. Itchy doesn't describe it. It's itchy plus intense pain, like someone is holding a thousand match-heads to you. In fact, in severe cases (like mine sometimes are) it really does look like a burn. This can last for weeks on end.
When I was really little I got a full body case. Luckily, I was too young to remember, but it almost killed me. Then, when I was in 5th grade, I got some on the back of my knee. I mean the entire back of my knee extending to a few inches above and below was one giant, weeping wound. My mom cut a hole in a cardboard box for me to keep my leg in while I slept face down (so the sheets wouldn't touch it). I literally could not bend my leg at all. This lasted for six weeks, and it was searing pain the entire time. After the rash finally healed, I had a massive limp for a few weeks because the muscles in my leg had atrophied so badly. For a 10-year-old, that'll mess you up.
If you're thinking, "Hey, don't hate on this plant. The oil is just its self-defense mechanism so animals don't eat it." Wrong. Deer and goats eat that stuff like crazy and don't exhibit any signs of reaction. Birds use it for nesting. No, it exists purely to suck and to ruin your camping trip.
The Invisible Enemy
While the itch is awful, the mental anguish is almost worse. This shit gets inside your head on a deep psychological level. Why? Because you can't see the urushiol oil. You know it's on some of your clothes or some of your gear, but you don't know what, exactly. So you have to wash EVERYTHING. Including things that are very hard to wash when you live in a small Brooklyn apartment with no washer or dryer. You need to use special soaps, you need to scrub every surface, and then there's always the possibility that your oil-laden gear touched something you didn't even take on your trip. This isn't paranoid—urushiol has been shown to cause a reaction even when it's hundreds of years old. You start to feel like all of your possessions are out to get you. You'll want to set fire to your apartment and never look back.
The mental game is further exacerbated by your asshole friends who claim to be immune. You're cowering in your tent, trying not to scratch, while they're crowing about how they've walked through it a million times and never get it. You're right to hate these people. It's worth noting that some people start off "immune" to poison oak, but can develop a sensitivity to it later in life. Even if you think you're immune, avoid that shit.
A Bad Year
Early indicators seem to point to a very bad year for poison oak, poison ivy, and sumac. Well, a good year for them, a bad year for us. You know all that crazy weather we've been having lately? That's making these plants go nuts, and there's popping up faster, fuller, and earlier than usual. This means that if you're going into the woods, you should be as prepared as possible.
What You Can Do
• Obviously the best way to not get poison oak is to avoid it all together, and that means knowing how to identify it. Know which strain you have in your region, and do a Google image search. There's a general "Leaves of three, let them be," rule that applies, but it's best to know exactly what those leaves look like in their many colors and variations, and again, the plant may not have any leaves at all.
• There are a lot of poison oak soaps out there, but Technu is my tried and true choice. If you know you've come into contact with poison oak, wash yourself and any gear or clothing that may have touched it with Technu as soon as humanly possible. You might just be able to get the oils off you before your skin starts to freak out.
• Once you feel the rash coming on you're pretty well screwed. Topical ointments like Calamine lotion may help with the itch a little, but not much. If you don't have to do much driving, start dosing yourself with Benadryl, as that may mediate your allergic reaction. If it's bad (or if it's on your face and/or naughty bits) you should go to the doctor, who may prescribe you an oral steroid (like Prednisone). Topical steroids generally don't do much, in my experience. Whatever you do, don't scratch. Seriously. It's only going to hurt way, way worse if those blisters break, and they can easily get infected.
• There are a number of natural remedies out there. Some recommend applying oatmeal to the rash. Jewelweed, which is a plant that often grows near poison oak, is said to have miraculous properties for combating the rashes (you can order jewelweed salves online). Technu also makes Technu Extreme, which is a sort of scrub that you use once the rash has already broken out. Some swear by it, but it didn't help me any this last time.
• Immunisation. I hesitate to even mention this because it sound batshit crazy to me. Some people actually eat a small amount of poison oak every day at the beginning of each spring to build up a tolerance to urushiol. I've read people testify that it worked miracles for them and they never got poison oak again. I've also ready that this caused one person's throat to close up almost entirely, and other stories of horrible, horrible butthole rashes. Some people wrap a little bit in bread and swallow it like a capsule. In any event this is extremely dangerous, and while the idea of getting immune to this stuff sounds like heaven to me, I can't recommend it. It could most definitely kill you.
So, as I recover from a foot that looks like it went through a meat grinder, you might wonder if I'd do it again. Damn right I would. If my boss would let me, I'll do it again next week. Yes, poison oak is a horrible blight on the face of the earth, but if you truly love the outdoors, don't let it stop you. Be aware, be prepared, and don't wipe your ass with any shiny leaves.