I Love Poison Oak

It’s springtime again, and all the bushes and flowers are slowly coming back to life. This slow budding of the new season also is happening with one of my favorite plants: poison oak. Even in its budding, it’s beautiful. Three small leaves poke out, bright green and red-orange. They spread across the ground, wind their way up trees, and work their way across fields.  Then, as summer is followed by fall, they turn golden, red, and orange, covering those fields with a painter’s palate-worth of color.

However, not everyone feels the same way that I do about this plant. “I hate it,” most people tell me.  But that is something I could never, ever, do.  You see, my love for poison oak is hard-earned.  Nearly a decade ago, I got into my first batch of it. It started on my forearm, like a tiny itchy scrape. So I itched it. Unfortunately, the more I itched, the worse it got.  By the time I went to the doctor’s office, I was covered and had no idea how it had happened. Both my arms and hands, as well as my chest and legs were swollen and red. 

“Doc,” I said, “You’ve gotta help me.  I’ve got a skin disease.”

“That’s no skin disease,” the doctor told me. “You’ve got scabies.”

So, I got treated for scabies.  Incidentally, scabies treatment is not very effective against poison oak, and I don’t see that doctor anymore. Things got worse.  The rash turned angry red and began to ooze.  I went from itchy to miserable to praying for death within a week. Finally, I saw a dermatologist. 

“Have you been in the woods lately?” he asked as soon as I pulled my shirt off.  “Because you have poison oak.”  And so began my first prednisone treatment. Three weeks later, I had recovered enough to shave but still looked like a red-skinned alligator. 

After that, I quickly learned how to identify poison oak. And Lake County abounds in varieties. In fact, we have several different sub-species. We’ve got plants with big leaves and plants with small leaves. There are bushes with little white berries, bushes that grow twenty feet high, and bushes that hide behind other safe bushes waiting to cover you with their oils.  I kept my eyes open and thought I had it figured out. 

That was until a few years ago when we moved to our home up on Cobb. It’s never been landscaped, unless the previous owner was a botanist specializing in poison oak.  We have poison oak copses, poison oak vegetable gardens, and poison oak ground covers. I cannot walk off the concrete without getting into it. Even worse, I can get it first, second, or third hand.  And as soon as those oils get on me, they spread like a bad rumor.  It’s insane: I always think I’m safe, and it turns out I’m not. I’ll be sure to get it from the kids, or the dog, or our firewood, or a neighbor who once talked to someone who had poison oak. Then I’m off and itching again.

I’ve had poison oak for a year straight. I remember a couple of itch-free weeks last March, and another week in September before I ended up on prednisone again for the third time. I just ask the doctors for refills now.  But the perk to having poison oak for a year, other than my incredibly heightened immune response, is that I’ve learned a few tricks on how to manage it.  If you want real tips on how to handle a poison oak rash, here’s a good place to start.  This article isn’t meant to be prescriptive.  Rather, think of it as a way to handle the psychological effects of poison oak.  Dealing with the rash is important, but dealing with the misery is paramount.

STEPS TO MANAGING POISON OAK:

1. Think of it with respect.  For a while, I got frustrated, annoyed, and looked at poison oak with hatred. That’s a bad idea.  If you think evil, vindictive thoughts towards poison oak, it will send its oils through the air, and you will end up with a rash. I know it’s true. I’ve given poison oak a dirty look and ended up itching that very evening.  This lesson is the most important of all: Send good vibes.

2.  Don’t touch it. I hope I don’t have to explain this one. If you think happy thoughts and avoid it, you’ll be fine. But if you do touch it, remember, the oils are extremely nasty. They linger on your clothes and fingers and wait for you to pick your nose or scratch an armpit. Then they spread everywhere. 

3.  If you don’t get the oils off before you get a rash, develop self-control.  You’re going to itch, and every time you scratch, you spread it.  And then that new spot itches. It’s a self-destructive cycle of misery that probably will last you about two or three weeks for each new spot on your body.  Now is a good time to take up meditation. If meditation doesn’t work, try primal scream therapy.  And to be honest, I dare you to not scratch.

5.  If it doesn’t stop spreading, prepare a will. When it gets to this stage, you’ll want to die. You will fantasize about lying down in a coffin and never, ever, itching again. But the odds are you won’t die, so hold on.  It may get better. But it may not. Either way, at least you’ll feel better knowing you have a will and that your legacy is secure.

6.  If it gets anywhere near your eyes or mouth, if you start to swell badly, or just don’t feel good about it, head into a doctor.  He’ll look you over and hopefully prescribe prednisone instead of scabies treatment. Then, after three weeks of being jacked up on corticosteroids, you’ll be set to expose yourself to poison oak again. 

This is just a small guide, but it does help cover some of the difficulties you might encounter.  Everywhere I looked online, I only found specific tips, when what I really needed was a different perspective. You see, I love poison oak. It is a beautiful, gentle plant. I’d never say otherwise. I just don’t want to itch anymore.

David Wakefield

David and Trudy Wakefield started The Bloom in 2018 to showcase the best parts of Lake County and to provide a local outlet for community events, arts, music, and writing.

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