Backcountry Camping Front Country Survival

Poison Oak: Fact vs. Fiction

Direct contact with plant juice is only way to contract poison oak?

True: It is the human body’s response to urushiol oil that creates the allergic reaction we all know and hate. You have to come into contact with the oil for it to attack your skin. This almost always happens as a result of brushing up against the plant, or against a tool, or an animal that has urushiol oil on it. HOWEVER: there are known cases of heavy wind (particularly in freshly burned areas) carrying the oil onto human hosts.

If inhaled, smoke from poison oak can kill you.

True: when poison oak is burned, the urushiol becomes airborne and can infect the lungs. The oil then causes blisters and rashes on your lung tissue, which, if untreated can lead to death.

Washing with soap and water can prevent poison oak

True: washing infected area with soap and water will prevent the urushiol from causing a rash. This is difficult however, because it is often impossible to tell when the urushiol is on you. By the time the rash has begun to show, the urushiol has already penetrated and done what it is going to do.

Scratching poison oak blisters spreads it more.

False: The only thing that creates the skin reaction associated with poison oak is the urushiol oil itself. The fluid from poison oak blisters is not urushiol, it is pus.

Poison Oak is contagious.

False: after the urushiol binds, there is no way that touching the effects of poison oak on someone will cause it to spread. Fresh oil that is still active on clothing or skin can spread it, but the rash-like effects of poison oak are not contagious.

If I get it once, it will be worse the next time I get it.

True: While not everyone reacts to poison oak upon first exposure, people usually become more sensitized with each contact and often more severely if/when exposed to urushiol again. Also, the reaction can last longer.

Once immune, always immune.

False: Sensitivity to poison oak can change over time. People who think themselves immune, can become responsive to it later on in their lives. People who were sensitive to poison oak as children may not be allergic to it as adults.

Dead poison oak isn’t toxic.

False: Urushiol stays active for up to five years.

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1 Comment

  • Look at the poison oak leaves (above). poison ivy leaves have a pointed end and are shiny. If you see what appear to be dead ivy vines on an old tree, DO NOT USE THEM TO CLIMB THE TREE! The oil may still be on the “dead” vine. I know from experience climbing to get mistletoe for a duck supper with girlfriends. I spent a horrible dinner trying not to scratch that itch on my inside thighs! I’d hugged the tree using the vine to go up. Oh, the agony!

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