"Watch Your Step": How to Treat & Identify Poison Oak

By Avery Nicol, Girls Who Hike Central Coast Ambassador

I was recently scrolling through all my 6,500+ photos in my phone trying to weed out old pics and make room in my albums for new adventures. It was then that I came across a series of snaps that I chronicled that reminded me of the worst case of poison oak that I have ever been exposed to. In the past, I had had minor encounters with this sneaky plant on the trail before, but this time my arm (and part of my leg) was completely ravaged with large blisters and unbelievably itchy skin.

IMG_1027.jpg

Healing took a period of almost two weeks!

Having gone through that process I vowed to myself that from then on out I would do my darndest to never let an exposure like that happen again. (The most ironic part is I picked it up from a free-ranging doggy friend that had picked up the oils on his fur and was highly unexpected).

IMG_1749.jpg

The cutest culprit

With that said, here I have compiled a list of preventative measures you can take to avoid these types of rashes, and what to do if you believe you have come in contact. 

#1: Identification

Learning how to identify poison oak will be the first thing to be mindful of when exploring around trails that may carry the plant. A good rule of thumb is if you see oak trees, there is a high likelihood of poison oak. This shrub can grow up to six feet tall, and releases an oil called urushiol from its leaves which is what causes the allergic reaction. 

According to Very Well Fit, if you are unsure.. LEAVES OF THREE.. LET IT BE!

Further details to remember: “The one thing that doesn't vary for poison oak is the pattern of three leaflets branching from a single, independent stem. Two leaves are attached directly to the stalk opposite each other. The third leaf juts out from them at a right angle, so the three-leaf pattern forms a triangle. There are no additional leaves on the same stalk.

The leaves may be serrated, round, or oak-like depending on what other foliage is around the poison oak plants. They may be shiny—or not. They may have a red tinge—or not. Be wary, or you're in for a week of itchy torture.

The plant itself may be seen as single stalks close to the ground with three leaves. Or a bush. Or a vine climbing a tree. You can see poison oak plants growing in all of these ways within a few feet of each other.”

#2 Prevention

-Wear protective clothing, particularly around the ankles and hands/wrists

-Wash your skin (or animal’s fur) thoroughly with Tec-Nu. If you clean 10-30 mins afterwards you may prevent the reaction before it binds

-Clean any and all supplies, clothing with hot soapy water as the oils have the ability to stick around for years to come if the environment remains dry

-Apply a barrier cream such as Ivy Block or Stokoguard

Also! Be mindful also of not tossing these shrubs into your campfire, as the toxins can be turned into a smoke that can be inhaled into your lungs. Ouch!

#3 Symptoms

Beginning symptoms include a red rash that will start to take shape 1-6 days after exposure, most likely after 24-48 hours. After this time you will see fluid-filled bumps that itch like a mother! The third phase will be a crust that forms after the blisters begin to dry up. Remember, whatever you do: DON’T SCRATCH!

IMG_1023.jpg

#4 Remedies

-Take a cool shower

-Applying over-the-counter anti-itching cream such as calamine lotion

-Take oatmeal baths

-Apply a baking-soda mixture

Obviously, if the allergic reaction is severe enough, you should definitely contact a physician or go to the emergency room immediately, particularly if it’s affecting your airways. The doctor should be able to prescribe a medication that would include a topical cream and/or oral steroids to reduce the any swelling or itching. Better to avoid it and not have to go through all of this jazz. Am I right??

Happy (and safe) hiking everyone! Hope this helps.


Avery is the Ambassador for our Central Coast, California chapter. To join her local meetups and discussions through the Central Coast chapter, click here. To become a member of Girls Who Hike, click here.