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Doctors define poison oak as one of the most dangerously deceiving plants in the world. Looking nothing like the easily identifiable poison ivy plant, poison oak affects millions of innocent nature lovers each year.

CLASSIFICATION

The scientific name for poison oak is Toxicodendrons. "Toxico" is Latin for poison and "dendron" is short for "plant for tree."

The leaves of poison oak range in size from one third of an inch to two inches in length, and they are almost always made up of three leaflets. Poison oak bears flowers on very thin stems and small, fruit-like berries. The flowers are whitish-green in color and often, pearly white berries are apparent on the stem.

KNOW SEASONAL CHANGES

Poison oak is considered a deceptive plant because it changes its appearance with every season. You can help to protect yourself against its itchy, painful rash by familiarizing yourself with its various characteristics.

Fall: In the fall, poison oak leaves are yellowish-red or yellowish-brown in color.

Winter: In the winter, sticks are often bare but still poisonous. Three distinct branches stemming from the main root areas will help to identify this plant during winter months. Note: Even the sticks are dangerous.

Spring: During spring months, poison oak is an attractive plant that produces beautiful, white apple blossom-looking flowers.

Summer: Poison oak loses its flowers in the summer, and leaves often turn dark maroon or fire engine red.

POISON OAK FACTS

Poison oak can climb. It's not uncommon to find this poisonous plant climbing along walls or deserted buildings. The biggest mistake people make is assuming that because it's not on the ground, it can't be poisonous.

Most people contract poison oak by picking their colorful leaves in the fall. A good rule of thumb is to never pick any leaves off a plant or tree that bears three leaves per stem.

Poison oak and poison ivy are often spread by birds, which feast on the seeds during winter months. For this reason, it is not uncommon to find a new crop of poison oak growing in lawns that were previously unexposed. You cannot spread poison oak by itching affected areas of skin.

GETTING RID OF POISON OAK

If poison oak is growing in your yard or around your home environment, you can use one of three ways to eradicate future growth.

Digging out the plant by its root is an effective, cheap way of cleaning your living environment of this toxic plant. Be sure to wear gloves and clothing that will protect you. The best time to pull poison oak is after a hard rain when the soil and roots are wet.

Chemical sprays and treatments are also an effective means of getting rid of poison oak. However, this method is not recommended for those people with pets or small children.

Buy a goat. Believe it or not, goats love to eat poison oak and are unaffected by its toxin.

CATCHING POISON OAK

To catch poison oak, you must come into physical contact with it. This also means that if your pants (or even your dog) has come into contact with the plant, you can be exposed by touching your clothing or pet. The oily substance to which your body is allergic is called "urushiol." As soon as you've touched poison oak and up to three days later, the urushiol from the plant begins to enter your bloodstream, creating a painfully itchy irritation that often blisters. After five days, blisters form a painful, stinging rash.

TREATING POISON OAK

If you've already come into contact with poison oak, odds are you've already begun to feel a stinging, burning sensation. There are several ways to treat poison oak exposure. While you can minimize some of the symptoms, poison oak is best treated with time.

Wash immediately. Washing your hands (and anything else that's come in contact with poison oak) immediately is your best defense and offense. Specially made soaps, such as "TechNu," are designed to remove urushiol from skin and clothing, and they work well.

Dry it out. Applying rubbing alcohol to affected areas immediately after washing will help to dissolve any unabsorbed poison and could help you avoid a bad infection.

Feel better. Applying anti-itch creams or calamine lotion will help relieve the painful, stinging itch of poison oak but will not make it go away faster. Such lotions and creams can be used up to four times daily.

Time is the best healer of poison oak. It can take as long as two weeks for rashes and blisters to dry and clear.

WARNING

Never wash contaminated clothing with other laundry items. Clothing can carry the poisonous oil for years. Dry cleaning is the only real way to remove urushiol from cloth.

Carefully monitor dogs and cats that run outdoors. They are often guilty of bringing urushiol indoors and spreading it to their owners through basic physical contact.

Severe allergic reactions such as a tight throat, abnormal areas of swelling, and fever and joint pain require immediate medical attention. Though many are allergic to urushiol, some persons are ultra-sensitive and may require hospitalization.