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How to Avoid Poison Oak (And What To Do If You Get It)

You want to go for a mountain ride but there’s poison oak on the trail. Here’s what to do.

If you’re lucky enough to not be allergic to poison oak, then you can skip this story entirely. Some 85 percent of people experience allergic reactions on their skin to poisonous plants like poison oak, poison oak, and poison sumac. So, chances are, you should continue reading. Let’s say you want to go for a mountain bike ride, but you heard there’s poison oak on the trail. You don’t have to let that get in the way of riding, but you should take some precautions, so you don’t end up covered head to toe in rashy blisters. (Trust us on that one.)

Spot it And Avoid It

The first trick to avoiding poison oak is being able to spot it. The ol’ “Three Leaves Let It Be” adage still applies, so avoid plants with three green, tear-shaped leaves if you know you’re in poison oak or ivy country. Poison oak tends to rear its ugly head in abundance in the spring, but it’s also easy to spot at that time of year, since the plants still have their leaves intact. Tecnu—makers of a cream that helps stop the spread of oil from these plants—has a handy map that shows you where these plants grow in the U.S.

Cover Up

If you know you’re going to be camping in an area with poison oak or riding a trail where it’s overgrown, cover your skin as best as you can. That might mean wearing pants while you bike (check out our Goodson Pant and Tia Pant) or wearing tall socks, long shorts, and a long-sleeved shirt. You can try to use an ivy blocker, which is a preventative substance you put on your skin to block contact with the oils, but long clothing is a more solid bet.

You Made Contact. Now What?

Sometimes, a run-in with poison oak is inevitable. (It’s growing across the trail! What are you supposed to do?) If you’ve been in a tangle with any bushes, the best thing to do is immediately wash as soon as you can. That could mean rinsing in a lake or river just off the trail, or taking a lukewarm (not hot: as that can spread the oils further) shower with Tecnu as soon as you’re back home. Follow the directions on the bottle for how to stop the spread. If you don’t have Tecnu, any kind of degreasing soap, like dishsoap, is better than nothing. Throw all of your clothes in a washing machine immediately and give your dog a soapy bath—pets can be the ultimate spreader of poison oak oil.

Treating the Rash

Despite your best efforts to prevent it, you got the rash. Sorry to hear that. Hopefully the ride was really fun? Now your job is to try to control the spread of the oils to other parts of your body. Seek medical attention if the rash is on your face or spreading uncontrollably (especially to, um, more sensitive parts of your body)—doctors can prescribe steroid creams and pills that will immediately stop the spread of the rash. Try not to itch—that’ll just spread the rash and clean your hands, including under your nails, thoroughly and frequently.

To self-treat, cold, wet compresses from a washcloth can offer some relief. Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream can take away some of the itchy feeling and dry up the oozing and weeping from the blisters. Lukewarm oatmeal baths may help, as can cold showers. The rash should dry out and begin to fade within seven to 10 days. If it's lingering or spreading still beyond that, you may need to see a doctor. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has more helpful pointers on fighting poison oak.

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