Poison oak rash is manifested as a result of the body's reaction to the plant toxin, urushiol, with symptoms like severe itching, redness, inflammation, and blistering. Here's more…
Poison oak, belonging to the family Anacardiaceae, is a potent plant that causes dermatitis when it comes in contact with human skin. There are two species of poison oak―Toxicodendron diversilobum and T. pubescence. As the former species is abundantly found in the western coast of North America, it is commonly referred to as western poison oak. The latter is adapted to the Atlantic coast, hence, known as Atlantic poison oak. Both species contain urushiol, which is the prime organic oil responsible for causing dermatitis. Every year, millions of people, irrespective of age, gender, and race, are affected with mild to severe poison oak rash.
Despite the name, poison oak is not related to the common oak tree. Rather, it is a dense shrub when grown outdoors, and a climber such as a vine in shaded areas. The leaves are arranged in a three-leaf pattern (like that of oak), and their color vary with each season. For example, in spring, the foliage is bright-green, and you can observe whitish blooms developing in the stem, whereas, in summer, the leaves turn yellowish-green, pinkish or reddish. In fall, the leaves are dark-red or brownish in color.
Identifying a poison oak plant is quite tricky, as there are several plants that show similar characteristics. Also, it is very much similar to poison ivy, except that the latter resembles a woody vine. The worst fact is that the surface oil, urushiol, remains active for about 5 years in dead poison oak plants. So, do not take the risk of handling even dead plant parts. On the safer side, do not touch any unknown plant that you come across while going outdoors. Only then you can protect yourself from such deadly plants.
Allergic reactions start within 8-48 hours after the skin touches the leaves, twigs, and other parts of the plant. The symptoms start with severe itching that progress to redness, inflammation, and swelling along a lineal pattern (where the plant brushes). Within a few days, the red rash turns into colorless bumps, slightly raised from the surrounding skin area. Upon scratching, these bumps develop into fluid-filled blisters that open and crust over with time. In severe cases, these symptoms may be accompanied with swelling of the face, neck, and genitals.
As per studies, it is observed that about 15-30 percent people have not shown poison oak rash in the first exposure. But, many of them manifest skin rash after repetitive exposure to the plant. Is the rash contagious? Poison oak rash, by itself, is not contagious, and develops as an immune reaction to urushiol. Nevertheless, if urushiol oil is retained in the skin, it can spread to others, but it is something quite rare.
Mild rash recovers on its own without any therapeutic intervention. However, the doctor may consider treatment for moderate to severe attacks. Treatment is also essential for those who have a compromised immune system. In such cases, the physician may recommend corticosteroid pills, skin ointments, and at times, injections for combating the skin reactions. If left untreated, the duration of the rash is about 10 days to 3 weeks. In hypersensitive people, the healing time may be as long as 6 weeks.
Speaking about remedies, there is nothing more to say other than self-care to combat the symptoms and prevent further spreading.
- Wash the affected area with water and prescription soap as soon as you get exposed (if possible within 30 minutes).
- Avoid using a scrubber, so as to minimize spreading of the plant toxin to other body parts.
- Do not use hot water for washing the affected area, as it can trigger a rash and increase spreading.
- In order to combat itching, apply cold and wet compress (remember not hot compress) over the affected area.
- Body sweat can worsen the rash, hence, take cold showers frequently and ensure that you remain cool.
- You can add oatmeal water, Epsom salt, or baking soda to a cool bath and soak the affected areas for about 15 minutes.
- Even though you might find it very tempting to scratch the affected area, avoid doing so as it will cause blistering.
- You can apply over-the-counter calamine lotion and cream to combat severe itching and blister formation.
- Wash your clothing and shoes thoroughly, whichever you touch, as urushiol oil can linger on them for long periods.
Not all people show the same healing responses with the above tips. Hence, the recovery time may vary from one individual to another. Spring to fall season is the worst time for contacting poison oak. Accordingly, prepare yourself and take care that you do not touch unknown plants. Make sure you wear long sleeves and long pants while performing outdoor activities.
Disclaimer: This HealthHearty article is for informative purposes only, and should not be replaced for the advice of a medical professional.