California Poison Control System (CPCS) is warning California residents that the recent fires throughout the state, followed by heavy rains, resulted in huge growth of poison oak. It is a serious threat especially to those who are allergic to the plant. Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) is found mainly in the western regions of the state growing from sea level to the mountains. Grassy hillsides, forests, recreation areas and coastal locations are home to the plant.
Identifiable by its climbing vine-like appearance, the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources describes poison oak as forming a dense, leafy shrub from one to six feet high. Leaves normally consist of three leaflets with the stalk of the central leaflet being longer than those of the other two and it has either glossy or dull leaves.
“There’s a saying, ‘Leaves of three, let it be,” among hikers. In addition to coming in contact with the plant itself, you can contract poison oak by touching clothing, shoes, gloves, pets and tools. Even smoke from burning plants can cause irritation,” said Dr. Rais Vohra, Medical Director for the Fresno/Madera Division of CPCS. He added exposure in allergic individuals will result in a rash about one to six days after exposure that itches and then forms water blisters. The fluid from these blisters does not transmit poison oak as many people think. Repeated exposure does, unfortunately, increase sensitivity.
Poison oak tips include: Wear boots, gloves and long pants when hiking; stay on trails away from brush where poison oak plants grow; if you are exposed to poison oak, wash the area thoroughly with lukewarm water and apply rubbing alcohol which may wash away the oil from the plant; wash all clothing, tools and pets that have been exposed to the plant; calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can help stop the itching, as can antihistamines.
Do not scratch the rash as that can cause infection and get immediate medical attention if you have trouble breathing or swallowing; the rash covers much of your body; you have many blisters; or swelling occurs.
Call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 (number is the same in all states) for questions about poison encounters. Trained pharmacists, nurses and other providers are available to help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. CPCS is part of the University of California San Francisco School of Pharmacy and is responsible to the California Emergency Medical Services Authority.