Poison Oak: Photos and Remedies

How To

Update: March 7, 2014

Daylight Savings Time is here and it is prime mountain biking season for the warmer parts of the country. Mtbr is based in Northern California and we’ve had the driest January and February on record. Poison oak shoots are already exploding in their red, juicy glory. This is a good time to brush up on your poison knowledge as identification and prevention is key.

“causes severe itching, evolves into inflammation, colorless bumps, and then blistering when scratched.”

We are not botanists but it is our business to understand this evil weed as it affects our mountain biking. No other trail hazard out there can be as damaging and bothersome to our riding. The problem is, it doesn’t have barbs or jagged edges that will cut us and let us know that damage has been done. It is like a seed that will incubate over the next day or two. And when it’s ready to do damage, it can fester for weeks and months. It is not just an itch. It is a burning, skin eating disease that can stop us from riding, getting out in the outdoors, drinking beer. Basically, it can land us in the hospital. So read on and be informed.

What is it?

Poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac are plants that contain an irritating, oily sap called urushiol. Urushiol triggers an allergic reaction when it comes into contact with skin, resulting in an itchy rash, which can appear within hours of exposure or up to several days later. A person can be exposed to urushiol directly or by touching objects — such as bike clothing, gardening tools, camping equipment, and even a pet’s fur — that have come into contact with the sap of one of the poison plants days or weeks earlier

Urushiol oil is found in all parts of these plants, including the leaves, stems, and roots, and is even present after the plant has died. Urushiol is absorbed quickly into the skin. It can also be inhaled if the poison plants are burned. The smoke may expose not only the skin to the chemical but also the nasal passages, throat, and lungs. Inhaled urushiol can cause a very serious allergic reaction and can surely land a person in the hospital as no topical cleaners or ointments can reach the body’s internals.

What does it look like?

Poison Oak is highly variable in appearance. It varies from shrub to vine. The leaves vary from red to green. It has long stems, leaves in threes, small greenish flowers, and smooth seeds that are about 1/4 inch across. It is often lush in coastal canyons, but sparse in the mountain woodland. It is deciduous, and often looses its leaves in late summer, leaving it hard to recognize. But the long, straight branches give a clue.

Poison-oak is usually a shrub, though it sometimes becomes a vine several inches in diameter that grows high into the oak trees attached by air-roots. The leaves DO come in threes. They are shiney, without prickers, and the middle leaf has a distinct stalk. It is harder to identify Poison Oak in the winter, when it loses its leaves and looks like erect bare sticks coming from the ground. In the spring, it is easy to detect as  the baby leaves shoot out in their full reddish glory.  This is when the urushiol is most potent and the slightest contact  with these reddish stacks will result in bad exposure.

Where is it found?

It is found in damp, semishady areas near running water and also thrives in direct sunlight, requiring water only in early spring. Any trail leading to a waterfall on California’s coast may likely be home to western poison oak; it can also be found in some inland mountain ranges, such as the Cascades.

It needs sunlight though so very shady places like redwood forests minimize the growth of these plants. Also, at higher elevation like over 6000 feet, they are not able to thrive.

The plant toxin produced by members of the genus Toxicodendron, called urushiol, is known for causing an uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, skin reaction. Urushiol is the main component of the oily resin that is found on the stems and leaves of poison ivy and several other related species (Hogan, 2008). It causes contact dermatitis — an immune-mediated skin inflammation (Kalish et al, 1994) — in four-fifths of humans.

What does it do?

Effects of poison oak are similar to those of poison ivy. It first causes severe itching, evolves into inflammation, colorless bumps, and then blistering when scratched. In late fall or winter, there are no leaves on the plants, so they can be difficult to recognize.

Continue reading for advice on how to treat it and full photo gallery.
About the author: Francis Cebedo

The founder of mtbr and roadbikereview, Francis Cebedo believes that every cyclist has a lot to teach and a lot to learn. "Our websites are communal hubs for sharing cycling experiences, trading adventure stories, and passing along product information and opinions." Francis' favorite bike is the last bike he rode, whether it's a dirt jumper, singlespeed, trail bike, lugged commuter or ultralight carbon road steed. Indeed, Francis loves cycling in all its forms and is happiest when infecting others with that same passion. Francis also believes that IPA will save America.


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  • Nate says:

    I am not terribly allergic to urushiol, so of the three mentioned, cactus would be my worst nemesis. However, you left off some notable ones. Here in TX, bullnettle is rather painful. A plant with a similar reaction farther north would be stinging nettles. Bullnettle tends to be low growing, so risk is low. I’ve seen stinging nettles over 7ft tall.

  • Chuck Dungan says:

    Im in Oregon and poisonoak is a killer.Tecnu for sure to cure the rash. I also take herbal poison oak drops that seemto decrease my abilityto catch P/O.

  • Francis says:

    The problem with poison oak is that if you don’t take care of it, it can stop you from riding for weeks. Since then, I’ve educated myself against the enemy.

  • BadHabit says:

    Heat up oak and ivy rash with a blow dryer and itching stops for hours.

  • NEPMTBA says:

    In my car I carry a squirt bottle with Dawn dish soap mixed with water, after the ride I squirt it in my arms, legs, then dry off, till I get home and shower!

  • Paul de Valera says:

    I have a great but extreme method for getting rid of that crap. I take a Scotch Brite pad and some ajax and scour my flesh off in the affected area. Being a mtbr, I’m used to scabs and scabs beat “the oak” any day of the week. I sand down to the layer where you get that yellow ooze and a little blood, that usually does the trick, the itchy evil is replace with a thin but largeish scab. fixed. Ointments and cremes don’t seem to do much at all. This way you stop the spread and can get back on the bike the next day.

    • Brian Teal says:

      Heh! I JUST posted this beneath yours and didn’t even read yours yet! I do it with bleach, but maybe I’ll try Ajax next time. ;^)

  • Brian Teal says:

    I catch PO so easily, but I ride through it a lot, so here is what I have found to work best for me…
    1. If I go through PO on the trail, I stop at the first mud puddle I see and grab hand fulls of mud and rub it all over the area I think I touched it. It then dries and takes the oils off (I think, because it works).
    2. If I do get some bumps appearing, I rub them hard with bleach and a rough towel, to almost breaking the skin open (come on, toughen up wimps ;^). If I can keep it clean, the bumps and wound are gone within 3 days, better than a week or two of constant scratching! Be careful not to let the raw skin get infected though, keep it clean…

  • Andrew says:

    The Ajax/bleach method is pretty sketchy…but I’ve also had PO/PI bad enough that I just want to chop the afflicted part of my body off.
    For anyone riding near the coast- if you can cruise on your bike to the ocean, it’s worth taking a dip – however cold- in the water to get it off you and all your clothing.
    I also take rhus toxicodendron pills…little sugar coated pellets of the extract, and it seems to provide help increasing tolerance (might be false), as well as getting over the outbreaks.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe PO/PI are also cases of reverse immunity…you become more susceptible to it the more you catch it. My least favorite plants on the planet.

  • slocaus says:

    I was fortunate to stumble and crawl through the PO, while surveying and building trails, with the west coast expert on the vile stuff. Here is his website. http://www.curtbeebe.com/index.html

  • bcinlas4 says:

    After a rince with cold water, I rub down with brake cleaner. It eliminates all traces of any oil. It works for me, but I’m not overly sensative to it.

  • wheel 84 says:

    Lather Lemon Joy on all exposed areas prior to riding, Wash it off with cold water later, It blocks the oil. I still try to avoid poison oak, but I haven’t got it yet using this
    method. A paint balling pharmacist told this to a friend. Lemon Joy, accept no alternatives.

  • jMoore says:

    Preventative:
    ::: roll on deodorant to your exposed arms and legs before exposure. I’ve found this works really well (in Ohio >> Poison Ivy) when I apply immediately before the ride.
    ::: immediately after a ride I apply Tecnu Poison Ivy soap to all exposed skin

    If I still get it:
    ::: for light cases I apply Tecnu several times a day. After 3 days it usually dries up.
    ::: for heavy cases I’ll use Tecnu Extreme where I take a ultra hot shower (you actually get a major endorphin rush with hot water on the itchy spots!) then apply the Tecnu scrub … repeat with hot water then the scrub. It usually goes away in 3 or 4 days or so.

    Untreated it’ll last 2 weeks on my skin.

  • Sandra Baker says:

    Oh my gosh, where to begin. I am a poison oak/poison ivy researcher.

    After exposure to the plants, some of you actually go home, or wait till you are in your car before you clean your skin. For the seriously allergic, you have only a few minutes before the oil starts being absorbed into your skin and the immune system is alerted. Others have more time. Why not have your skin cleanser of choice on your bike? For the unprepared—here is what you do. Did you see the post about mud? This writer was on the right path, except you dont need water in the mixture. Dig down through the ground mulch to clay–real dirt. Clay attracts oil to itself. If the molecules are full of water, it cant, and has to dry. So mud is okay if it has time to dry on your skin, but best is to take dry dirt and scrub your skin over and over with it.

    You can smear your body with mud for your ride, but it will fall off. Easiest is Ivy Block, which is made from a special—yep—clay, and it does not show. It has been clinically tested and works pretty well supposedly.

    Zanfel has been clinically tested, and can sometimes stave off a rash if you dont wait too long to apply.

    Bleach will dry the blisters up, but can leave life long scars. Brake cleaner will get the oil off because it is composed of toxic petrochemicals. Tecnu has the least toxic petrochemical in it, and works well.

    For a rash, very hot water or a hair dryer moved in close, and removed before burning the skin works well. It too has been clinically tested and proven effective by acting on the itching nerve network. (yes itch has its own nerve network separate from the pain one. Thats why opiates will not touch itch). I used to get 6 hours of sleep from heat, but a hot shower doesnt cut it. It has to be real hot, and you just put a limb under the water for a second or two.

    My credentials: I wrote “The Poison Oak & Poison Ivy Survival Guide”

  • Francis says:

    Thank you Sandra Baker!!! Wonderful info.

  • mtnbikej says:

    I have found that any of the “orange” hand soaps you find at the automotive stores works wonders on the oils from PO. The pumice and degreasing qualities of these soaps does a great job at removing the oils. Also, a 1 gallon jug can be had for around $10. I will usually lather up and wash off exposed areas 2-3 times at the inital bathing after the ride. In addition, use cold water during first bathing if exposed. Hot water will open up the pores of your skin allowing the oils to penetrate quicker. If you do get PO and a rash breaks out, continue using the pumice soap and warm water to get any left over oils off.

  • Andrea says:

    Ice. Ice packs on the itch if I didn’t catch it soon enough. Straight ice. All the rub it off, petrochemicals, technu in the world doesn’t do for me what a frozen-as-he|| ice pack does. It’s probably hitting the itch receptors the same way as the hot shower…

  • Itchy Bawls says:

    I find the best way is to combine all the approaches.

    1) Give yourself a good paint thinner coat before riding to prevent poison oak oil from sticking.
    2) after riding douse yourself in gasoline.
    3) light your self on fire (just for a minute, you want to be a little crispy on the outside but still chewy on the inside).
    4) douse yourself in bleach after about 10 seconds of burning to put out the flames.
    5) use the battery acid to exfoliate that dead crispy skin right off.

    You will be left with a nice fresh layer of pink virgin skin!*

    *Do not use this technique more than once per week as layers of skin take a few days to regenerate.

    • WSmac says:

      …ooooh…. to have pink virgin skin again!…. THANKS! :)
      uh.. can I use this even IF I haven’t been exposed to poison oak?

  • Andrew says:

    I used to use Ivy Block and Tecnu religiously but it seemed like I would always get a nasty case of PO after riding, even if I was almost certain that I had not touched PO. With the help of my doctor I eventually figured out that I had developed an allergic reaction to the ingredients in Ivy Block and Tecnu and was reacting to that and not PO.

    mtnbikej is right about the orange hand cleaners, they work great. I also find that dish soap is fairly effective.

    When I wash I scrub exposed areas first being careful to keep the rinse water away from uncontaminated areas of my body. I scrub and rinse exposed areas 2-4 times depending on level of exposure. I would say that I spend up to 30 minutes on my “poison oak scrubdown” after exposure. I think a good way to visualize how hard it is to remove the oils is to think of how hard it is to get the black stains off your hands after working on greasy bike parts or working on a car. It can take a few minutes of scrubbing just to get black grease stains off your hands with hand cleaner. Imagine that you have those black stains all over your body and scrub accordingly. If you do this you will only get PO where you have had direct plant contact. You will have no problems with the rash spreading.

    The best piece of advice though, is to ride with long sleeves on and then to carefully strip and bag your shorts, socks, gloves, and jersey as soon as you get back to the car. Then put all that stuff through the washing machine with extra detergent and hot water.

  • David Turner says:

    SIMPLE GREEN! I carry a spray bottle and roll of paper towels in the van and immediately after riding anywhere near PO wash all exposed skin 2x with Simple Green then rinse with water. When I get home I wash helmet and shoes with Simple Green and toss all the other kit in wash machine. My wife skipped the Camelback wash years ago and the straps were carrying the oil, of course she figured this out the hard way with big swaths of blisters around her shoulders (tank tops….) If I KNOW I will be riding anywhere near PO, I also make sure not to forget the sunscreen on all exposed skin. I know that sunscreen is supposed to be part of our pre ride prep, skin cancer etc, but sometimes I skip it as I hate the slimy feel, unless I know there is PO around! This effectively seals the pores and with these two topical I have not hand a single outbreak in over 10 years.

    DT

  • Chris Gaunya says:

    Tecnu works really well for me. I haven’t tried the dirt bath on the trail but I will keep it in mind. Usually, I get home take off everything I was wearing while riding and throw it in the washer immediately including my shoes. Then I jump in the shower and scrub with tecnu or orange dish washing liquid. I am very sensitive to poison ivy and have spent my fair share of miserable summers as a kid.

  • Rich Nichols says:

    OK, hear it is. Put soap on your fore arms, hands and shins, before you ride! As soon as you can: peel your clothes into the wash. Wash your hands and fore arms with cool water ( so the pores in your skin stay closed) and soap Three times. Tecnu if you have it. wash lower legs three times. now wash the rest three times. If you feel you are getting a rash. Rub the area with Tecnu for two mins and rinse …And don’t fall in It!

  • Theo says:

    After years of building trail around poison oak the best way to make sure you don’t get a really bad reaction is to be sure you have some PO. I try make sure I’ve got a little PO in my system at all times so the reaction is not as drastic. I’ve had it very bad in the past but since I’ve been trying to have it I’ve not had a serious reaction. Do not take this as an encouragement to roll in PO! Also, put a small bottle of the strongest soap you can stand in your pack…that way if you do accidentally land in a PO bush(as I have) you have some chance of getting rid of it.

  • clint says:

    PLEASE BE AWARE BLEACH, GASOLINE OR OTHER HARSH CURES CAN PUT YOU IN THE HOSPITAL.
    It is not recommended to ever,ever use any items of that nature and I have know personally an individual who nearly cashed in after using bleach.

    The best and safest item you can use is a called ZANFEL which can be purchased over the counter at most drug stores.

    It is not cheap but it works and works very well and take notes cause I will let all of you in on a tip I learned previously.

    If you suffer from easily getting poisen ive,oak or what ever as I do and I work outside in this stuff daily during the warm months here in michigan.

    You want to use the ZANFEL to remove the oil and stop the itch BUT if the itch persist you want to go get your wifes hair drier in the bathroom set it on high and heat the area that has been affected.

    As you heat the area, it will itch like crazy for a moment BUT as its heated and becomes hot enough that you have to move the hair drier away so you dont burn yourself the itch will go away.
    Not only will it go away, it will be gone for the night ( up to 8 hours ).

    As I say heat till you cant stand it, move the drier back to regulate the heat on the area but keep the heat there for as long as you can handle, once the itch stops enjoy the relief..
    I do this along with the zanfel a few times a year and its a blessing and prednizone ( spelling??) does not work at all for me,,,

    You can thank me later..

  • Joel says:

    Yes on the ZANFEL. Anyone who rides needs a tube of this stuff in the bathroom. Wash up with Tecnu first, but then have then hit exposed spots with Zanfel and keep doing so if it starts to itch. Early, before it blisters.

  • Martin Schmidt says:

    Oral Ivy works for me.

    • Michael A says:

      Oral Ivy works for me too. Have had the best luck with this, and like the approach the most as you really seem to build up a resistance, as opposed to constantly playing catch-up trying to remove the oils or completely avoiding contact with the plant.
      I typically would get rrrrrreally brutally bad breakouts all throughout the summer until I started a regular regime of oral ivy starting in the late winter/early spring. Not eveyone may have the same luck with oral ivy, but my experience has been that I will still get the poison ivy/oak, but in very small amounts, usually only resulting in a couple of blisters that do not seem to itch as much, and clear up very quickly. I can deal with that nooo problem. I would rather put up with a small, tolerable amount than have to be uber paranoid all the time and be washing and rinsing and washing like crazy and using all kinds of weird remedies.
      My reactions for about 8 years have been Horendous, with next to no major exposure to the stuff. the last 2 years after starting with the oral ivy I have had minor breakouts that come and go but never really take over, and have actually managed to be able to WORK up to my eyeballs in the stuff. I have a small brook on my property that I have been working on clearing out all the deadfall, and pulling the vines down out of the trees. Major overgrowth of poison oak with vines a few inches in diameter, just like mentioned in the article. Crazy exposure, with very little reaction.
      Here is my approach:
      Prevention: Oral Ivy (Its a concentrated amount of urishiol that diminishes your reaction to exposure, which you just dilute in water and drink. Simple as that.)
      Washing: Gojo and or Poison Ivy Soap (Found this stuff in a local power equipment store that arborists use. Its a bar of soap made of saponified animal oils, jewel weed and spring water. Doesnt cost a fortune and lasts quite a while.)
      Relief: Hot water, as hot as you can tolerate.

      • Michael A says:

        Here is the info I found on the stuff:

        Boericke & Tafel Oral Ivy™ Directions.
        For prevention:
        3 to 5 drops in 1/4 glass of water daily by mouth 7-14 days before exposure and continue throughout the poison ivy season.
        For treatment of symptoms:
        10 drops in 2 ounces of water every 2 hours as needed. As symptoms improve, decrease to once every 4 hours, then twice daily until symptoms disappear. Place drops under tongue in 2 ounces of water at least 15 minutes before or half hour after eating, brushing teeth or drinking anything except water.

        Ingredients: (HPUS): Rhus toxicodendron (Poison Ivy) 3X

        •Natural Homeopathic
        •70% Alcohol
        •Prevents symptoms of Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac

  • Thomas says:

    In Belgium we only have Nettle Plants and the worst of all things in the world Ticks KILL EM ALLL!!

  • Jonathan says:

    Ivy Block has been discontinued. Ivy Defense is still available and also has sun block in it. I am very allergic and have found both products pretty effective at preventing poison ivy but not 100%. I still get multiple cases per year, but without them I would get poison ivy after every ride.

  • Karl says:

    It grows on my property, so I get it all the time no matter what I do! Prevention is great, but once you have it, the best thing to do is not itch. There is a Benadryl lotion that has changed my life, takes the itch away and is cool feeling.

  • Dmitriy Zasyatkin says:

    “Oral Ivy”, which is homeopathy, is the only thing that I’ve found to be effective at preventing it (building up a tolerance) and treating it once you have it, besides the steriod shot. If you’re highly allergic, don’t wait until you get a rash, start taking a few drops a day to build up a tolerance so that you won’t be affected because you probably won’t be able to recognize and avoid the plants all the time.

  • EpicAndy says:

    Faceplanted in a pile of the stuff this weekend at Demo. Then I blew up a wheel. Full rash by the time I made it back to the car.

    I look funny.

    ASS — you may now laugh.

  • Rudy says:

    Definitely don’t scratch. Ever! There are some natural ingredients like lavender that really help with the itch, and with the inflammation too. I’ve had pretty good success on a small patch with a product called Lavender and Calendula Soothing Balm from Botanic Organic. Made right here in Northern California. http://botanicorganic.com/products/babybalm
    I’d be curious if others have tried it and how much success they’ve had.

  • tracey says:

    Great went MTB trail that never been there and then learned that I got poison ivy two days later !!! went urgent care to get steroid shot… I use my dog tea tree shampoo to wash my body and baking soda.. but still feel itchy… IS there any products that you can put on your body before ride MTB to keep from getting poison ivy or else???

    • Mtbr says:

      Dang–that sucks! Technu is a good preventative step, followed by a cold water rinse at your car post-ride. Running water as hot as you can stand it over the affected area releases histamines and brings relief for several hours–just don’t scald yourself.

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