Poison oak is a low-growing, upright shrub. It can grow to be about 3 feet tall, sometimes giving it the appearance of a vine.
Leaf shape resembles an oak leaf (hence the name, poison oak), but it’s not a member of the oak family.
Leaflets are duller green than poison ivy and usually more distinctly lobed or toothed.
Leaflets have hairs on both sides, unlike poison ivy.
Poison oak tends to grow at elevations between sea level and 5,000 feet.
While the fruit of poison ivy is the color of pearls, poison oak fruit (called “drupes”) has a tan color.
At the end of the day, remember: Leaves of three, let it be. In other words, if you see a plant with clusters of three leaves, don’t touch it!
Poison Oak Symptoms
Symptoms of poison oak include itchy red rashes that resemble burns, swelling, and even blistering.
Symptoms can take 24-48 hours or even up to a week to show up, mainly if it’s your first exposure!
Poison oak, like poison ivy, contains urushiol. This oily substance causes a poison oak rash, which can be almost impossible to avoid. Upon contact with your body, urushiol immediately forms a chemical bond with the skin and causes an almost unstoppable allergic reaction. Urushiol will stay on clothes, pets, or other materials for months, and its potency lasts. This means that you could even get poison oak without going anywhere near it.
The urushiol resin can cause harsher reactions for those who have been exposed to it before. Sensitivity to urushiol might decrease if you do not come into contact with it until later in life. Only about 15 percent of people are resistant to urushiol, so don’t feel safe around poison oak unless you are absolutely sure you are resistant. You also may become sensitive with repeated exposure, so your resistance might be short-lived.
Danger: Smoke inhalation from burning poison oak can send you straight to the emergency room. Avoid burning this plant (and poison ivy)!
Poison Oak Treatment
Treating poison oak within 10 minutes of contact is your best chance of avoiding a reaction.
Urushiol is not water-soluble! Use strong soaps (like dish soap) and wash with cold water to keep the oils from spreading. Cleanse the area of contact within the first ten minutes, then rinse off with cold water. As urushiol can remain active for years, you’ll want to wash any clothes, items, or furniture that may have come into contact with the invisible oily residue.
If you don’t catch the exposure immediately, treat the resulting itchy rash and blisters topically with calamine lotion, baking soda pastes, aloe vera, and many commercial products. If you don’t mind mixing breakfast and skin care, one tried-and-true remedy for itchy skin is oatmeal. If poison oak is extremely serious, consult your doctor about a prescription.
Of course, the best remedy is always prevention; study our photos so you can recognize poison oak.
Have you ever had a run-in with poison oak? Tell us about it in the comments below!