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Identifying Poison Oak

Obviously, a big problem with getting Poison Oak is identifying the plant. If you can't spot Poison Oak a mile away, your only recourse is to never touch any vegetation at all while on the trail or doing whatever you're doing.

Poison Oak

You can recognize Poison Oak by its trademarked 3 leaf pattern. Unfortunately, there are other plants with triple leaf patterns too.

You cannot depend on the color. In some areas, the leaves remain green the entire time they are on the stem. In other areas the leaves are red in the spring.

Growth ranges from sea level to 5000 feet altitude in various forms, such as spindly plants, bushes, or climbing vines. Being a very common "shrub" in California, it must be watched for everywhere.



In the Spring, the leaves are light, bright green with whitish green flowers clustered on the stems.


Poison oak in the spring

In the Summer, Poison Oak has yellow-green, pink, or reddish colors on some of the leaves, with small white or tan berries after the flowers of Spring.


Poison oak in the summer
Late Summer/Early Fall

Certain times and certain conditions can even cause leaves to become Yellow.

Poison oak in the late summer/early fall

The fruit becomes darker, the leaves turn bright red or russet brown.


Poison oak in the fall

Now the insidiousness of this evil weed is laid bare. The leaves and seeds fall, leaving stick or whip-like stems or climbing vines.


Poison oak in the winter
The Poison Oak rash is cause by a chemical called urushiol. This is present in poison oak leaves, branches, roots, everything. When you touch it, the oil is absorbed into the skin. This is a poisonous substance, and the rash is the result of your body's immune system fighting against this invader.

You can get Poison Oak by touching the plant, its leaves, roots, whatever. If an animal, such as your dog, gets in Poison Oak you can get it from petting the dog (the dog won't get the rash though). You can get it from your clothing or equipment that touches Poison Oak.

The rash doesn't appear until after the oil is absorbed into your skin, because it is caused by your body's immune system. If you think you have exposed an area of skin to the oil you can the clean the area with rubbing alcohol, this may limit or even stop the oil from being absorbed. 

Once you get the rash, you can't spread it around by scratching. The oil that seeps from your wounded body isn't urushiol, its secreted by your body.

The reason most people think it will spread is because of secondary infection. You touch a poison oak plant, the oil is on your hands. You rub your face, it gets there. That is how the oil is spread. Now after a while, there isn't as much oil to spread around, so some parts get hit more heavily. What this means is, the rash appears soon is some spots, and takes a couple of days in other spots. This gives the illusion that you've spread the rash by scratching or whatever.

Just make sure you aren't getting brand-new infection from your clothing. Whenever you go in to an area where Poison Oak is, as soon as you get home put all your clothes, shoes, everything in a bag, and wash it all. Only through extreme paranoia can you avoid poison oak. The alternative is to never go anywhere fun.

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