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Wednesday, August 30, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Troubleshooter

Nature's Itchy Little Message: `Leaves Of 3, Let Them Be'

Pardon me, but this column may be interrupted while I scratch.

Yes, I brought home a souvenir from my two-week vacation: Poison oak.

Actually the furry, four-footed "girls" at my house picked it up first and shared it. Not realizing they'd romped through oak, I hugged them and picked up the urushiol oil off their coats. Being protected by all that fur, they are unaffected. But I've acquired creeping red . . . red ear, red arm, red shoulder . . . well, never mind.

I do have a speaking acquaintance with poison oak. I recognize it most of the time and have been the designated sprayer at our summer cabin ever since my husband inadvertently burned some years ago, inhaled the fumes and had a severe reaction.

50 million itching

Unfortunately, there's nothing unique about my experience. Every year an estimated 50 million people who come in contact with poison oak, ivy or sumac develop allergic skin reactions.

Poison oak is one of the major perils for hikers in the West, because it grows up to an elevation of 5,000 feet and takes many forms. The most common story I've heard during my week of itching is about hikers who go behind a bush to heed the call of nature and squat on poison oak.

One friend grew up on a farm in California. She got the rash as a result of milking cows, which had it on their hide. Her family's remedy was to give her drops of medication in escalating amounts to build up immunity. But the magical "drops" seem to have disappeared from the marketplace.

A Christmas tree farmer friend gave me a bottle of Tecnu Poison Oak-N-Ivy cleansing lotion.

So I phoned the maker, Tec Laboratories Inc. of Oregon (800-ITCHING), to ask about its product.

Diane Davis of Tec Labs swears I could have avoided much of my woes had I immediately washed off the urushiol oil with Tecnu after hugging my dogs. Davis showers with Jerome, her cocker spaniel, after they've been hiking.

Fallout and poison oak

Tecnu was invented in the 1960s by biochemist Robert Smith, as a wash to remove radioactive dust in case of nuclear fallout. (He also invented Metrecal, a diet drink.)

As the Cold War wound down, Smith's wife discovered that the detergent actually removed poison oak and ivy oils from the body and clothing.

No, readers, I am not making this up. Tecnu is used by farmers and utility workers.

This does remain an area of medical science where statistics are somewhat squishy, much information is anecdotal and treatment and folklore are inseparable.

For instance, some sufferers take Grandmother's advice and wash with the time-honored Fels-Naptha bar, better known as "yellow soap." The folks at the Dial Corp., which now owns Fels-Naptha, say that while old wives' tales recommend it, they can't, "because we have not specifically tested it for that." Otherwise the federal Food and Drug Administration would squawk.

Several years ago the FDA warned the makers of calamine lotion against touting its poison-oak curing abilities too strongly.

Over-the-counter or prescription strength, cortisone creams may help alleviate the pain of the allergic reaction. But so will frequent cold compresses.

Sufferers with severe reactions may require steroid shots and antihistamines.

Steroids won't get rid of the rash, said Dr. William Robertson, medical director of the Washington State Poison Center, but they will "calm it down." The rash can range from 14 to 21 days.

So, boys and girls, have a great Labor Day weekend and be careful out there. Remember Grandmother's advice:

"Leaves of three, let them be."

And if you've got any great remedies for poison oak, send them my way.

Shelby Gilje's Troubleshooter column appears Wednesday and Sunday in the Scene section of The Times. Do you have a consumer problem? Write to Times Troubleshooter, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Include copies, not originals, of appropriate documents. Phone, 464-2262, fax 382-8873, or email address, sgil-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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