Problem: Poison Oak
A cousin of poison ivy (prevalent east of the Rockies) and poison sumac
(prevalent in the Great Lakes regions and east of the Mississippi
River), poison oak is the culprit for the most common allergic reaction
to plants along the West Coast and in the Southwest. It's a low-lying
shrub or small tree or vine with three-toothed leaflets and clusters of
white or tan berries that appear after spring. The plant's leaves turn
a deep red in the fall.
Poison oak is rampant throughout Northern California, and its toxic,
oily and often colorless resin, urushiol, works quickly. It begins to
penetrate once it touches the skin and a reaction will appear within 12
to 48 hours as a line or streak of rashes resembling insect bites.
Those sensitive to poison oak, ivy and sumac (about 85 percent of
the population) don't need to come in contact with the plant to develop
the rash. Since urushiol spreads so quickly and can be invisible, it
may be carried on animal fur, garden tools, sports equipment and
clothes. For those with darker-colored skin, small dark spots can
remain even after the rash heals.
Danger zone: Redness and swelling will begin in a
couple of days, with blisters and severe itching lasting from a few
days to several weeks. Those with severe reactions can develop a high
fever and require cortisone shots. Firefighters are particularly
susceptible because they can get poison oak in their lungs via smoke.
Solution: If you're hiking, running, bicycling,
hunting or enjoying any outdoor activity, be aware of your
surroundings. To avoid skin contact with the plants, wear long pants,
long-sleeved shirts, gloves and boots, if possible. Keep your pets from
running through infested areas. And never burn poison oak.
If you think you've had contact with poison oak, wash all
potentially exposed areas with cold water as soon as possible. There
are skin soaps supposedly able to neutralize urushiol if used soon
enough after exposure.
When you return home, wash all clothing outside to prevent resin
from transferring to rugs or furniture. Since urushiol can remain
active for months, make certain to wash all camping gear or equipment
that may be carrying it. Hot water is advised.
If you develop a rash, avoid scratching the blisters. Although the
fluid in blisters will not spread the rash, fingernails may carry the
resin or germs that could cause an infection. Successful treatment for
the rash varies. While some firefighters have become immune by taking
long-term prescription medication that contains the plant's extract,
it's not recommended for the general public. The tedious process can
cause severe cases of the rash and also prompt other side effect.
Hydrocortisone cream and Calamine and Caladryl lotions are
recommended to dry lesions. Other products such as rubbing alcohol and
Tecnu lotion work to neutralize toxins if used within a few hours after
Problem: Bee Stings
Lots of rain this year means lots of flowers. And that means bees are
being drawn to them. That's not a problem for most people, but a deadly
issue for those allergic to bee and wasp venom. Those who are allergic
could lapse into anaphylactic shock.
Danger zone: Not all with a bee-sting allergy are
aware of it. Alsop said those who have other allergies should be
careful. She's not aware of the "killer" strain of aggressive bees
having arrived in Northern California -- yet.
Solution: Be aware that it could be a big year for
bees. Alsop said people who suspect an allergy to bee venom should see
a doctor. Those people, and people with known bee venom allergies, can
carry an allergy emergency kit, which contains a syringe with
epinephrine, which can be injected to temporarily relieve breathing
difficulties for those in anaphylactic shock.
Bats that fly high and are doing their job eating insects are no
problem. Alsop worries about bats that attempt to, or succeed, at
making human contact. They may be sick.
Danger zone: Some Northern California bats have
rabies. Alsop said their teeth are so sharp that some bat-bite victims
are unaware they've been bitten. She is aware of two bat-bite rabies
casualties. Both were cases in which bats were in people's homes.
Solution: Avoid caves and other places where bats
are known to live. If you think you've had contact with a bat, get to
an emergency room. You may be told to begin treatment for rabies
Problem: Bugging You?
Mosquitoes, which are insects, and ticks, which are arachnids (as are
spiders), are likely to bug you out in the wild. Heavy rains tend to
help mosquitoes breed and produce more grasses where ticks hang out.
Danger zone: Mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus
could pass it via their bite. West Nile can be fatal, though most
healthy adults survive. Symptoms appear in about a week.
Certain ticks carry Lyme disease, which can become a serious problem
without prompt treatment. It shows up as a painful rash and flulike
Solution: Repellents containing DEET. For
mosquitoes, eliminate standing water or camp farther from wet areas.
For ticks and mosquitoes, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
Other sources: state Department of Health Services; state parks (www.parks.ca.gov). To contact the California Poison Control System: (800) 222-1222. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: www.cdc.gov