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Summer season brings influx of poison oak

Experts offer tips for detection and prevention
By: Kristine Coman, Journal Features Editor
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The warm weather of the summer season brings Auburn-area residents and visitors outdoors to mix with Mother Nature. Many outdoor enthusiasts who mingle with the elements are at risk for an allergy to poison oak. According to Dr. Mark Vaughan with Sutter Independent Physicians in Auburn, it is estimated 70 percent of people who come in contact with urushiol, the oily substance found in poison oak and its cousins, poison ivy and poison sumac, are allergic to the substance. "It is a very high percentage," he said. "Protection is key." For the most sensitive, the smallest brush of a leaf against an unprotected wrist can produce an oozing, blistering, maddeningly itchy rash that lasts for weeks. Ranger Roger Hood of Auburn State Recreation Area said he hopes people gather information about poison oak before venturing into the wilderness. "This stuff is everywhere and seems especially thick this year," he said. "People need to be aware of what it looks like and be careful and keep an eye on their children." Dr. Scott Miller with Sutter Independent Physicians in Auburn, said education is key. "Learn to identify poison oak and stay away from it," he said. "This poisonous plant contains an almost invisible clear to slightly yellow oil that penetrates the skin within minutes of coming in contact with it. A red, itchy rash and tiny weeping blisters may appear within 12 to 48 hours." Poison oak can grow as a shrub, small tree or less often a vine. "It has greenish-white berries and leaves in clusters of three," Miller said. "The oil comes from any cut or crushed part of the plant's leaves, stems or vines. It can also be carried on shoes, clothing, garden tools and on the paws or fur of pets. If you need to go into areas where poison oak grows, wear long pants, long sleeves, gloves and boots." Miller advises staying away from the plants - if you can. They are almost everywhere and come in many forms. Poison ivy often is a vine with serrated "leaves of three." But the leaflets also can come in clusters of five, and similar poison oak can grow as a bush, while poison sumac can be a small tree or shrub with up to 13 staggered leaflets. "There are a few things to keep in mind if you suspect you have come in contact with the oil from the plant," Vaughan said. "Do not rub your eyes. The most severe cases I've seen have been infected eyes." If you've touched a suspicious plant, all experts agree: Wash up quickly, with water (cold or lukewarm) and soap. You have approximately 10 minutes before the urushiol binds with your skin and starts a reaction. Once a rash starts, the experts recommend:
  • Soothing, drying soaps and lotions, such as calamine, for mild cases.
  • A trip to a doctor for steroid creams - or pills, for more severe cases.
  • Less helpful: over-the-counter hydrocortisone products and anesthetics. "Hot water may irritate the poison oak," Vaughan said. "Try to keep the water lukewarm or on the cool side." Vaughan said taking a pro-active approach to poison oak is best. "Education is key. Know what you are looking for before you venture out where there may be poison oak present."