Runner vs Nature: Poison Oak and Ivy

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You have been warned! (Photo: My Own 100 Hikes blog)

Running Warehouse’s home is a truly beautiful place to be a runner. San Luis Obispo County is full of open space covered in countless miles of trails. Within the immediate area one can run on the beach or up to 3000 feet of elevation within a 15 minute of drive from this office. We are truly blessed, but every blessing comes with a curse, and our curse is poison oak. The scarlet letter of our trail running faithful shows itself every spring and reappears far too frequently throughout the summer.

Run away from these plants!

If you see these three leaved devils, Run Away! (image: woolxlife)

Poison oak, and its equally insidious cousin poison ivy, are fairly ubiquitous in the contiguous United States (aside from desert regions). As part of the appropriately named Toxicodendron family of plants, poison oak and ivy’s weapon of choice is the oil named urushoil. The oil causes an allergic reaction in most of its victims. This reaction may be mild or nonexistent upon first encounter but grows worse the longer skin is exposed to the plants.

Reactions range from merely annoying for those that skimmed the leaves or stems of the plant to debilitating for those who endured significant exposure. Also worth mentioning is every individual’s body ranges in sensitivity to the oil, therefore, exposure does not entirely dictate the severity of the reaction. The oil can infect air passages if the plant is burned and can travel down creeks and rivers of densely vegetated areas. The worst encounters often affect the newly initiated, who go off the beaten path to relieve themselves of one of life’s other discomforts and are tempted by the large coverage of some of the leaves. Regardless of the circumstance, one learns quickly from the experience.

However, those trail addicts among us need not avoid our favorite vice. With careful preparation poison oak and ivy need not be feared and you can keep logging miles on your favorite trails year round. Knowing what the plants look like, with their infamous three leaves (hence the popular aphorism “leaves of three, let it be”) is the first step to proper preparation. Poison oak and ivy are quite similar in structure, yet, poison oak leaves trend a little lighter in color and have rounder edges (comparable to oak leaves). Poison ivy leaves come to a more prominent point and are typically darker. Both plants have white berries and small flowers in the spring and summer seasons and their leaves change color in the fall. Typically, it is advisable that if you see any trace of the plant, stay on the marked trail and try not to touch any of the surrounding vegetation unless you can easily identify that it is not poison oak or ivy. Also, be careful that pets don’t wander through the brush and deliver the oil to you.

When poison oak or ivy is unavoidable in the denser growth of a favorite single-track or you believe you may have accidentally come in contact, diligent cleaning immediately after exposure can take care of the oil. A simple rinse in the shower is not enough and soap with some degreasing properties is highly recommended. Washing clothes and shoes immediately is also necessary. The worst thing you could do is to wander around your home spreading the oil to other surfaces to repeatedly expose yourself, or others, to its ill effects in the future. If you will be on the trail for a long time and won’t be able to clean soon after exposure, it is recommended to wear longer sleeves, pants, or long socks to cover more skin.

Don't Run into this Plant!

Poison Oak’s beauty is only skin deep, and Not on your skin! (image:

If you do fall victim to the oil and find yourself with an unsightly and uncomfortable reaction, make sure to keep it clean and do your best not to scratch it, despite how liberating it may feel in the moment. Once the reaction does appear, the oil is usually gone so it won’t spread to other places on your body or to other people. Cortisone cream can help with the irritation and stronger cortical steroids are available for the worst reactions. Seeing a physician if one is particularly allergic or if one highly exposed to the oil is certainly warranted if one’s normal daily function is impacted.

Don’t let these silly plants ruin your summer. This video from the American Academy of Dermatology expands on the above avoidance methods and offers some more advice. See you on the trails.

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