Safety in the California Outdoors

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 contact.

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.

Problem: Bats

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 exposure.

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 symptoms.

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


James Raia, co-author of Tour de France For Dummies, is a freelance writer in Sacramento, California. Visit his web site: www.byjamesraia.com.

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