Poison oak in season

It's red, raised, has liquid-filled blisters and itches like mad. It's the rash caused by the common allergic reaction to poison oak.

Poison oak is a common plant throughout the Pacific Northwest. Ashland has no shortage of the stuff for anyone outdoors to stroll through, lie in, send a dog romping through or even pick to add to a floral bouquet.

Don Robertson, director of Ashland's Parks and Recreation Department, has heard some strange tales of people coming in contact with poison oak.

The Parks Department makes every effort to keep it out of the developed parks. However, there's a lot of the plant growing up slope in the wild side of Lithia Park. Any wooded or shrubby area in the region is likely to harbor some poison oak, Robertson said.

This time of year poison oak turns color, from green to a fall-like yellow, orange and red, which is a water-conserving mechanism for the plant. In areas with plenty of water, the leaves will stay green, Robertson said.

Every summer the number of people who visit the emergency room and doctors' offices for poison oak reactions goes up, said Rick Landt, an emergency room registered nurse at Ashland Community Hospital for 20 years.

"People are outside more and wear less clothes," he said, adding that you can get the rash whether or not the plant has leaves.

"There's hundreds of different rashes; every rash is not poison oak. The only way to know for sure is to have it checked," Landt said.

Seeking medical attention is ultimately up to the individual. One should seek attention if a rash covers the entire body, if poison oak is inhaled — which does happen when it's inadvertently burned — if swelling of the throat occurs or if the condition becomes unbearable, Landt said.

The more severe and intolerable cases of poison oak are typically treated with corticosteroid topical ointments and injections, he said.

"In general, poison oak is not life-threatening," Landt said. "Poison oak is a miserable experience."

Minor cases will go away on their own and a pharmacist can help with over-the-counter medicines for itch relief, Landt said.

Robertson and Landt agree that the first step in not getting the rash is to avoid contact with the plant all together.

"Everyone at a young age should know what it looks like," said Robertson, suggesting that people should also wear long pants when in wooded areas and try to avoid touching their clothes later.

Should a small patch of a suspected poison oak rash appear, try not to scratch and do not scratch the skin open. That can cause more problems with secondary infections and spreading the rash, Landt said.

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