Skip to content

Poison Oak

Do you enjoy walking or hiking?  
Do you do yard work?
Do you have pets at home?  
Do you live in California?  
Do you have a new terribly itchy, red, blistering rash?

If yes to any of the above, take our poison oak quiz and learn how to avoid this pest of a plant:

Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) looks like – A) a small plant; B) a larger shrub; C) a vine; or D) all of the above. ANSWER: D) all of the above!  

Poison oak leaves come in leaflets of three, and turn red in the fall, True/False.  ANSWER: TRUE.

The stem of the poison oak plant can also be troublesome, True/False.  ANSWER: TRUE.  Poison oak leaves and stems all contain urushiol oil.  Urushiol oil is what causes your skin to break out in that itchy, red, sometimes blistering rash.  If this is your first exposure, it may take a week for the rash to appear, whereas the rash often appears more quickly on subsequent exposures.  You can expect the rash to last between 5 to 12 days.

The rash of poison oak is contagious, True/False.  ANSWER: FALSE.  The rash of poison oak occurs when a person is exposed to and becomes allergic to urushiol oil.  The rash and blisters that result from contact with urushiol oil are not contagious from one person to another.  It is true that urushiol oil is pesky and can often be transferred from its initial point of contact (where your legs or hands came into contact with the oil) to other areas of your body.

Not everyone reacts to poison oak, True/False.  ANSWER: TRUE.  There are some lucky few amongst us (about 15-20% of the population) who don’t seem to be bothered by poison oak.  

The best way to avoid poison oak is to never go outside, True/False.  ANSWER: FALSE.  While this may technically be true, we do want you to enjoy the great outdoors!  Follow our common-sense tips for avoiding poison oak, and you should be in good shape.

Common-sense tips for avoiding poison oak: 

Learn to recognize this pest of a plant (see above).
Wear long pants and socks.
Hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts may find it useful to apply a barrier cream that contains bentoqutam to areas of potential exposure prior to outdoor activity.  
After a poison oak encounter, the best way to remove urushiol oil is to apply a mild solvent such as isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol over the exposed skin and then wash with copious amounts of water.  Using only a small amount of water or wiping the area with a hand wipe, may make things worse by spreading the oil.  It is best to perform these steps soon after exposure.
Technical products which can be used as a barrier before exposure, or afterwards to remove urushiol oil from your skin, can be found at most outdoor and sporting stores.  
Also make sure to launder any clothing, and wipe down any shoes or equipment that may have been exposed.

If you do all this and still get a rash, make an appointment to be seen.  Most cases of mild poison oak can be treated with an antihistamine pill to help with itch and a corticosteroid cream or ointment to address inflammation.  With more severe poison oak, your dermatologist may choose to give you a systemic corticosteroid – this may be a course of corticosteroid pills tapered over a few weeks, or an injectable corticosteroid.