You and your family have just finished a wonderful hike in the hills. The sun was shining, flowers blooming and the wind was just strong enough to take the edge off the heat. You were adventurous so you exited the small trail and explored the nearby terrain, easily negotiating the underbrush. Yes, life is great, that is until a few days later you noticed some spots on your forearms which rapidly spread to your legs, neck and even y0ur face. The kids and wife have similar rashes, which by then were unbelievably itchy. Convinced that you and yours have contracted some weird fatal skin disease, you rushed to the emergency room where the nice young doctor ( was she old enough to be a doctor?) diagnosed poison oak allergy.
Understand that the underbrush, which days ago you seemed to have ignored in your quest to relive the movie The Sound Of Music, actually was chocked full of the ever present poison oak. The leaves appear similar to oak leaves with three parts, but tend to have a reddish hue. Brushing up against the plants releases a small amount of oil. It is this sap like substance which revs up your immune system. The reaction doesn’t occur immediately as a bee sting would. Instead, it lets you think that all is well as the hordes of immune cells (T cells) prepare their onslaught and a few days later your skin looks like a war zone.
Usually, the eruptions are linear, directly over the area of contact-hence the name contact dermatitis. Although the lesions are weepy, the substance which comes out of your skin is not at all contagious- it is simply the result of an overstimulated immune system. Other lesions may crop up at different times simply because the timing is related to the dose initially received and not as a result of scratching. In fact, the plant oil is only potent until it dries out. However, your clothes and your dog should be handled with care, as the oil may still be on them.
Treatment involves cool soaks with witch hazel, calamine solution or for more bothersome cases, your doctor can prescribe steroids and antihistamines.
In the future, remember that The Sound of Music was filmed in the Alps, which doesn’t have poison oak!