Spreading the Word
Typical Appearances
First Aid
Medical Care
Risk ManagementBiochemistry



About the Author


The Wicked Stepfather

A young man told me: My brother and I were about five and seven years old. And we be playing in the woods. One day he needed to go to the bathroom, and he used the wrong substitute for toilet paper! He was in bad shape for a while.  Well, we had a mean stepfather. And we decided to rub poison-ivy in his underpants. We thought it would give him a fit, but nothing happened. Turned out he wasnt sensitive!

The stepfather reacted very differently from the boys because he was not related by blood.

Kids Stuff

I grew up in rural New Hampshire. Every spring I broke out between my fingers. Thats how us kids knew when to start wearing work gloves.

More daring was picking the first ivy. After several dandelions were showing, the older kids would lead us around the edge of the playground. Wed squeeze the fresh red leaves between our fingers, and smear the juice across our hands. Then Id run to the bathroom and wash it off! Later in the year this would have broken me out. 

Risk Management

Gloves Off    

In March of 1999 I decided it was time to clean the black stains off my first pair of pretty blue gauntlet gloves. I soaked them in Tide, Clorox Blue and hot water. Then figuring they must be safe now, I scrubbed the outsides with bare hands, using soaps and solvents. Didnt change one stain! Got the rash between my fingers, though. Thats when I decided to buy two more pair.

My Gloves

I am moderately sensitive, like 60% of people. Therefore, I offer my routines for limiting exposure to poison-oak as a starting point for others.

Leather gloves are easily penetrated by urushiols. They make my hands itch the second time I use them to hold and pull poison-oak.

I fell in love with neoprene gauntlet gloves early in my work with poison-oak. Heres my first pair, just before they got thrown away:

Stained Gloves

I always wore cotton liners inside of them. Id put the liners on, and then pull the gauntlets on by the cuffs. Removing them Id pull one gauntlet off, keeping the liner on, and then pull the other gauntlet off by the fingers. I used them two years, before they became too hot to handle.  

Stained Gloves

Here are the cotton liners. Eventually, I felt safe tearing poison-oak out by its roots with this combination!

Later on, I tried using neoprene gloves by themselves, which gave me greater dexterity and was cooler. However, I found that California Blackberry thorns pierced them, transmitting just enough poison-oak sap to make my hands itch. So, for pulling poison-oak Im using the combination; when cutting poison-oak I wear just the gauntlet gloves.

 Handling contaminated tools I get enough protection wearing just the liners. When my hands begin to itch I launder them. I do this several times before I throw the liners away.


Skin Injuries


Jim was descending a steep bank near a telephone pole, when his feet suddenly slipped out from underneath him. As he skidded down the bank he grabbed the pole. It was covered with poison-oak. His arm was scraped, but he was otherwise OK.

Jim had never gotten poison-oak He wasnt worried. He went on working, and showered five hours later. Jim got the rash where hed been scraped.

Its been years since that happened. He hasnt any more trouble.


Mike works full time out-of-doors. He is sensitive to poison-oak. He often has rashes on his arms, especially in the gap between his sleeves and gloves.

Mike was clearing brush, and was stabbed in the wrist by a poison-oak twig. I ought to clean that up! he thought. Thirty-five minutes later he remembered again, and did so.

That night he was awoken by painful throbbing of his arm. Red streaks were coursing up his arm.


A boy was riding his bike in a creek, hit a rock, and got thrown into a poison-oak bush. He reacted so severely, he had to be hospitalized!

To prevent these serious reactions a routine has been developed: IMMEDIATELY wash the wound; drinking water is fine. Blot dry with a clean cloth, for example a shirt tail. Seal the wound with sun block. And cover it with a bandage.


In July 1999 I visited Alaska with my youngest son. Just before we left I got another once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:  permission to dig out the entire root system of a full-grown poison-oak! A car had lost control, left the road and sheared the top off an eight-foot-high plant. The root, at soil level, was six inches in diameter. I cleared the ground for five feet in every direction. Soon, I was stripped to a T shirt, and reaching into a five foot deep hole from which a three inch tap root disappeared. My arm brushed the soil.

Two days later, in lower British Columbia, my arm broke out. I scrubbed the rash with Tecnu, and the rash cleared. On day seven, I became aware of a tingling of my legs just below the knees. The adjustment strings of my gaiters flipped around in the brush; I had never had this problem, before. On day eleven, my hands began to itch when I drove, and we had to buy a steering wheel cover!

With each reaction my sensitivity had been ramping up. (Fortunately, since then my sensitivity has dropped again.)



A woman reports that her two children got bad cases of poison-oak; she worried that they would not recover.  Her son had a plaque of abnormal skin for two months. Her daughter had a plaque for five months.

Just Poison-Oak

Another woman reports was out for a run, and hit some poison-oak stems pretty hard. Shed had mild reactions before, and thought Its just poison-oak! As a precaution she took a hot shower right after the run.

She had such a severe reaction she thought for months she was dying! And, she was left with chronic fatigue. Five years later she was still unwell.

She may have been scratched (see FIRST AID). Use a shower, not a bathtub, because you want the urushiol to go down the drain, not spread. Start with cool water at the beginning of your shower; hot water increases blood flow to your skin, which increases the rate at which memory cells find the haptene.



In 1963 we got married, and our first apartment cost $25 a month. One of the things it lacked was screens they had rusted out. Jacksonville, Florida, was hot at night, so we left the windows open and slept under a mosquito bar that we used for camping. My wife developed a rash on the side of one knee. Im lying there one night, and I see the breeze blow the netting against her leg, and I remembered camping in some ivy. We gave the netting a bath, and the rash disappeared.

Sometimes you have to be a sleuth to figure it out, but transmission often works like this we had crushed some ivy on the netting, and then forgotten about it.

A Hunting We Will Go

Jack got a leather hunting vest for Christmas; he proudly hung it in the hall closet, and used it that spring. He used it next one day in the fall; there was no poison-oak around, but he got the typical rash anyway!

Leather soaks up urushiol like a sponge. The air in the closet was dry, ideal storage conditions for the poison - it lasted six months.  

Rosy Cheeks

The doctors were puzzled. The forces of Japanese occupation had rashes on their right cheeks; their elbows; and on their buttocks!

Turned out that in their spare time, the troops were firing captured souvenir rifles and hanging around Jap bars. The rifle stocks, counter tops and bar toilet seats were all lacquered with urushiol!

See the Biochemistry section of this web site, and the reference in the 12-1-06 Annotated Bibliography for more information on urushiol. In seventeenth century Japan demand for urushiol so exceeded supply that the emperor ordered every farmer to cultivate lacquer trees on a percentage of his land, and pay his taxes in sap, on pain of death!

In the early twentieth century Japanese chemists figured out the chemical structure of urushiol, which earned them the right to name the mixture. Urushiol is the word they chose; the word means oil (ol) of Tsuta urushi, Japanese for the oriental lacquer tree.

During World War II Japan was cut off from other sources of lacquer, and they used urushiol extensively.


Holler on Hollister

Back in the time when it was OK to climb Mount Hollister, a young man found a banner on a pole wedged between rocks on the east side of the summit. Hey, he yelled to his friend; Im going to be king of the mountain. He gave a mighty tug on the pole. To his surprise, the pole popped loose easily. He tottered backwards and fell off a cliff.

Poison-oak grew in a lush thicket at the foot of the cliff. It broke his fall, and he wasnt seriously hurt!

All content copyright Dr. Curt Beebe. Please do not use without permission.