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Poison Oak in times of Coronavirus

Poison oak in times of Coronavirus

If there’s anything that could be worse than coronavirus and quarantine, that would be coronavirus quarantine with a case of poison oak.

The impact of Covid-19 around the world has been unimaginable. The health threat here in San Luis Obispo County has not been severe, but many are feeling the dire effects of job loss and isolation. On the Central Coast, coping with quarantine for many means hiking the dusty trails of Bishop Peak, Cerro San Luis and Johnson Ranch.

It’s a beautiful time of year to get out and hike the gorgeous hills of SLO County. And you should know that the trails of the Central Coast are now directional, generally clockwise. This keeps people moving in the same direction in order to maintain social distance and to minimize face-to-face contact between hikers, bikers and nature likers. But hiking can expose you to another threat of Mother Nature: poison oak.

Recognizing poison oak

If you’re not already intimately familiar with California’s great outdoors, you might easily mistake poison oak for a dozen other native shrubs. But in fact, poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) has a pretty distinct appearance that makes it easy to spot.

The famous expression says, “Leaves of three, let it be. But if it’s hairy, then it’s berry.” Indeed, poison oak grows with leaves of three, as in the photo below. But it can easily be confused with berries, which have similar leaf shapes, but with hairy texture and thorny branches.

Poison oak in early spring with bright green, oily leaves of three

In early spring, the leaves are light green, with a shiny luster from their skin irritating oils. In summer, the leaves darken into a deeper green, and in autumn the leaves turn red, producing an attractive appearance. But beware, this plant is dangerous all year round. And perhaps most dangerous of all in the winter, after its leaves have dropped, but when the bare branches continue to line the trails and spread their toxins.

Effects of poison oak

Unlike Stinging Nettle, which grows throughout the world and produces an almost instant skin irritation, poison oak works slowly. After brushing against its leaves and branches, you might not notice the effects of poison oak until a day or two later.

People react differently to poison oak, with some individuals being highly sensitive and others being basically immune. And interestingly, your sensitivity to this pernicious plant can change over the course of your lifetime. But the skin rash that poison oak produces is not something you’d ever want to repeat.

It starts with little blisters, and slowly they begin to spread and fester. Scratching the rash, which is virtually impossible to resist, will always help the oils and irritants to spread, increasing the rash’s coverage on your skin. The rash and blisters could go on for a week or even two. Just try not scratch. You can also put thick fuzzy socks over your hands at night, to reduce scratching in your sleep.

Spreading poison oak and how to avoid it

Not only can you spread it around yourself, but you can also spread poison oak between people. Especially risky is the spread of poison oak between those who are most intimate, which can lead to the horrific possibility of getting a poison oak outbreak around the private parts.

This is most dangerous between partners who have different levels of sensitivity to the plant. Like Coronavirus and other contagious diseases, a person can get the contaminants on their body without reacting, but still be capable of spreading them to others.

For example, Larry who does not react to poison oak goes for a hike alone with his dog Spot. Carelessly, he chases spot through the brush and the two have the time of their life. When he comes home, Larry gives his girlfriend Sally and giant hug and a kiss. Then Spot hops up on the couch and snuggles with Sally while they enjoy a nice two-hour movie. The next day, everyone is fine, except for Sally, who’s starting to scratch. And it’s downhill from there. Soon, Larry is in the doghouse.

Clothing is also a terrible carrier of poison oak oils. After a long hike through the brush, you should definitely throw everything in the laundry. Also take a shower. You can buy special products to help get the toxic oils off your skin as well.

But the best prevention is simply to know what poison oak looks like. Only this way can you be sure to avoid it, and keep it off yourself and your loved ones. But if your dog insists on running off the trail, well, then you have a problem.

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Check out some of our other articles to learn more about itchy plants and bitter herbs, beneficial or otherwise.

PHOTO CREDITS: Poison oak flourishing on Cerro San Luis, by Fred Hornaday

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