Every spring and summer thousands of gardeners, hikers and campers
experience the severe, itching rash of poison oak. It can be recognized by its
three leaflets, shaped similar to an oak leaf and slightly shiny. Remeber the
adage: “Leaves of three, let it be”. Touching this plant produces a “contact
dermatitis”. The rash is characterized by swelling and inflammation of the
skin, followed by blistering, oozing and scab formation. It’s estimated that
as many as two thirds of the population on the West coast is sensitive to
Those exposed usually pick up the resin on their legs and palms and
then transfer it to other areas, often their face and genitals. It takes 15
minutes for the resin to begin to bind with the keratin layer of the skin,
starting the inflammatory process. It is noteworthy that a rash rarely breaks
out on the palms, since the keratin layer of the skin is too thick for the
resin to bind there.
The best thing to do if you know you’ve been exposed to poison oak is
to wash your skin immediately with rubbing alcohol, in which the resin is
soluble. Beer or other beverages containing alcohol will help to dissolve the
resin if rubbing alcohol is not available. Soap works, but not as well. If you
do wash with soap, make sure you do it in the shower so the resin is washed
down the drain, not deposited in a slick on the sides of the tub to spread to
This last year a new product, “Stokogard” (pronounced stock-a-gard),
has become available from Sweden. Stokogard must be applied before exposure to
form a barrier that the resin cannot penetrate. It is 95% effective against
poison oak outbreak. The protection lasts for 10 hours unless you swim or
perspire excessively. Stokogard is now available in some pharmacies for about
$6.00. Such a deal!
There are actually two different patterns of outbreak that may occur
if you are exposed to poison oak without protection. For those with a known
sensitivity, the rash begins quickly (in 24-36 hours), lasts 3-4 days and
clears within the next 5 days. The entire experience usually lasts 7-10 days.
However, if you’ve never reacted to poison oak before or if it has
been more than 10 years since your last outbreak, the pattern may be
different. It can take as long as 7 to 10 days before the initial blistering
begins. Over the next week new blisters appear. This isn’t because of new
exposure or spreading. Instead it reflects a rising immune reaction and
varying doses of the resin as it was distributed on areas of the skin with
differing thickness of the keratin layer.
Conventional medical treatment is high-dose, oral corticosteroids
(usually prednisone). While prednisone is incredibly effective, it is a very
potent drug with major side effects, making its use unwise for some people.
There are some very effective naturopathic therapies which we often
recommend. This is an excellent time for use of the right homeopathic remedy.
A quick look at how your rash is manifesting will assist your naturopathic
physician in determining the most appropriate homeopathic medicine. The
results are often astonishingly effective. Application of the juice of
Jewelweed (part of the Impatiens family that grows near poison oak) provides a
natural antidote. It is available in health food stores as “Oak-Away” and
helps soothe and dry the lesions.
Without a doubt, the best medicine for poison oak is preventive
medicine. As you spend time outdoors this summer, be aware of the presence of
this plant. Cleanse your skin with alcohol as soon as you are exposed. If you
know you’re sensitive, apply Stokogard before hiking or gardening. Simple
prevention can render one of summer’s major problems a distant memory!
Dr. Sally LaMont practices in Marin County, California and can be reached at (415) 267-7679