My son Leland recently began a summer job at the Point Reyes Youth Conservation Corps clearing trails and subsequently beginning an intimate relationship with poison oak. Armoring ourselves against a summer of physical misery triggered an extensive medical and herbal research project to understand what the physiological mechanism for poison oak is and how to prevent and treat the rash once contracted.
Ironically, people are basically the only animals really sensitive to urushiol, the resin found in the plant. Dogs and rabbits may be sensitive, however, deer, goats, horses, rats, cattle and birds love the stuff! The resinous sap may help with wound healing, fungal and bacterial infections and I heard my daughter's horse trainer say that the poison oak helps the horses with joint inflammation. In our case, it appears to be our well-developed immune system overreacting to a relatively innocuous plant resin on the skin.
Native Americans used poison oak poultices that were “very effective in healing wounds,” writes Jan Timbrook in Chumash Ethnobotany. The juice or sap that flows from young stems was also used to stop bleeding.
The Franciscan priest at mission San Luis Obispo in the early nineteenth century, to note a rather dramatic example, witnessed powdered poison oak used to heal the severe wounds a man suffered during a bear attack. In his own words: “The Indians have no physicians but they have healers who administer their remedies to the sick. … The remedies they employ are plants, bark, roots and the leaves of various kinds of trees which I do not know except the ivy from which I have seen them make plasters, for instance in the case of a man who had been frightfully lacerated by a bear in the arms, legs, sides and shoulders. He was cured by simply being covered with the powder of the ivy.”
According to Timbrook, the historic populations of Chumash were largely immune to poison oak’s rash causing poison, while visiting Indians from other regions were often highly allergic. Immunity apparently waned in later generations among whom, presumably, traditional medicinal practices were no longer used and there was less exposure to the plant in the wild.
The Mahuna Indians of California steeped dried poison oak roots in water and drank the resulting decoction as a preventive against future allergic reaction to the plant. To obtain immunity the Tolowa ate the youngest leaves in early spring just as they began to sprout.
The Outbreak Poison oak can produce a very uncomfortable rash to surface on our skin anywhere from 8 hours after contact and up to 14 days later for first time exposures. It takes about 15-30 minutes for the plant oil, urushiol to begin to bind with the keratin layer of our skin, thus beginning the skin’s revolt. This contact dermatitis is characterized by swelling, inflammation, blisters, oozing and scab formation.
The rash can occur anywhere the plant oil has touched the skin, so a person with poison oak can’t spread it all over the body by scratching. It may seem like the rash is spreading if it appears in different locations over time instead of all at once but this is either because the plant oil is absorbed at different rates in different parts of the body or because of repeated exposure to contaminated objects or from plant oil trapped under the fingernails. After you wash, you cannot spread or “infect” others with the rash. The weeping rash does not contain urushiol and the condition is not contagious.
Indirect contact with the oil that may be on clothing, pet fur, hiking boots and car seats can also transfer the oil and cause a rash. Dried plants over 100 years old have been found to have active urushiol resin in their stems. This stuff doesn’t go away easily.
PREVENTION Bentonite Clay can be mixed with water and applied to exposed skin prior to hiking. Bentonite can be found in most health food stores in the body care sections.
There is a product called Ivy Block®. It is an aerosol spray or lotion containing activated bentonite clay used in antiperspirants. Ivy Block® forms a barrier that both prevents urushiol from touching the skin and chemically binds with it so it becomes inactive. Another effective blocking agent called StokoGard Outdoor Cream®, a fatty acid ester, is available through industrial supply houses.
ONCE CONTACT HAS OCURRED BEST Step 1: Immediately cleanse area with alcohol swab or spray with my LadyBee Botanical’s Poison Oak Resolve made with Manzinita, Mugwort, and plantain. . NEXT BEST Step 2: Rinse with water or in a stream. Any water will help! (Note on water temperature. From what I have read, water temperature does not make a difference, however, the pores do open and the skin does breathe with warm water and so if you have a choice, I recommend slightly warm water rather than cold which in Chinese medicine would contract the tissue and “trap” the pathogen. )
Step 3: Soap or an astringent oil like castor can be very helpful at first as both can pull irritating oils away from skin. LadyBee Black Soap and Rosemary Cleansing Oil can be used for this step.
Tecnu Oak-n-Ivy® Cleanser is a mixture of natural solvents and wood pulp by-products which remove terpene resins and urushiol from the skin. Interestingly enough, the original Tecnu product was developed to remove radioactive fallout dust from the skin without water (Mermon, 1987). It was supposed to be stocked in fallout shelters across the United States. Later it was found to be highly effective in removing paint resins and, quite by accident, urushiol. Tecnu is a crude distillate of gasoline.
Step 4: If a rash and blisters appear, use surface resolving topicals such as my LadyBee Poison Oak Mud which contains comfrey, aloe, calendula, goldenseal, plantain, mugwort, chickweed, vit E, honey, propolis, kaolin clay, bentonite clay, glycerine, grapefruitseed extract.
Step 5: Take internal Blood Cleansing tinctures to clear bloodstream such as echinacea, yellow dock, red root, nettle, red clover, and rosemary.
Step 6: Wash all clothes and surfaces in hot water with oil resolving solutions. Borax and bleach can work. Vinegar is another option.
Good Luck and enjoy your summer hikes and our native Wildnerness!