Ah, summer. Time to go explore the great outdoors. Time to go camping and hiking. Time to become one with nature.

Time to get poison oak.

Poison oak isn't a poison: it's an allergic contact dermatitis caused by contact with the oil of the poison oak plant. One characteristic is the pattern of the blisters on the skin. The oil on the leaves is typically streaked onto the skin, resulting in blisters in a linear pattern.

If you know you're sensitive, avoid contact with the plant. Tech-Nu before exposure helps. If exposed, do your best to wash (with soap) within half an hour. Using pre-moistened wipes, like those used for babies, is another alternative, and you can carry them in your shirt pocket or bag. If you remove the oil in a half-hour or so, you can often prevent a reaction.

You should also clean off anything else that contacted the plant. This includes shoes, belts, backpacks, bikes, dogs, tents: anything that could have touched it at any time in the past. Don't say "well, it's been three weeks since I was out in the woods - I don't *really* need to clean all this stuff." Not true. There have been cases where folks got poison oak from touching things that were in storage for THIRTY YEARS!

It'll take a good wiping with a damp rag to remove the oil. Be sure to wear good rubber gloves as hand protection, and then wash your hands with soap and water as soon as you're done. Remember that you have a half-hour "grace period."

Okay, you've washed your boots, belt, mountain bike, and dog. You're still itching. What do you do?

Caladryl Lotion, or any other skin preparation that has the ingredient pramoxine may help control the itching, and is safe to use. Keep in mind that using Benadryl (diphenhydramine, which used to be in Caladryl) on the skin is NOT a good idea.

Calamine lotion can be soothing. Also helpful are Domeboro tablets, which you can buy at the drugstore. Dissolve them as directed in water, and soak frequently. This will help dry up the blisters and stop the itching.

Benadryl by mouth can help itching, though it causes drowsiness. The usual dose is 25 to 50 milligrams every 6 hours or so. It's not a good idea to drive or operate heavy machinery after taking antihistamines like Benadryl. Valium also works well at bedtime.

The best treatment for poison oak is steroids. They're not the kind of steroids that make bodybuilders look like Gonad the Barbarian (anabolic steroids); they're corticosteroid creams, gels, ointments, pills, or injections. Most are prescription only, except for hydrocortisone cream or ointment, which usually isn't strong enough. Pills are usually given in decreasing amounts over a week or so; the injection's a one-shot kind of deal. So to speak.

If you've had TB, or have a history of ulcers, or have a history of bipolar disorder or other kinds of psychiatric problems, tell your doctor before taking steroids.

You also should watch your poison oak for local infection, which may look red, painful, and oozing. If it's causing honey-yellow crusts on the infected areas, it may be impetigo. Infections often require antibiotics. Don't wait for it to cure itself, since it can lead to some nasty complications, including (rarely) death.

for more articles like this, see my book "Blood, Sweat, and Gears." Available from Whitehorse Press (800-531-1133) or by clicking here from amazon.

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