Sinister species

May 28

The itch began just above my left eye. And when I scratched it, it spread like a forest fire to both eyes down my face through my lips and toward my chin.

That's when I knew the itch had nothing to do with boredom or drowsiness; that it must have something to do with what has been appearing on my wife's right leg lately.

For the last three weeks, she has complained about a small, red rash of festering bumps that has spread from her shin to her toe.

She displayed the rash for me a few times, hoping for pity in return.

"Look," she said. "Look at 'em. They're spreading. They're on my thigh now."

"That's horrible," I'd say reflexively. But I never really mustered the kind of believable empathy that one healthy spouse is supposed to bestow on the other - until now - now that I know why my eyeballs are begging for me to scratch them until they bleed. Hurting, I truly believe, is so much more bearable than itching.

Poison oak, I have deduced, is almost surely the source of all this itching.

And it's everywhere in the Gorge right now, oozing its invisible venom.

It grows like a cash crop on the east side of Hood River - especially along Catherine Creek and around Mosier. But it also grows in some areas on the west side, such as Herman Creek or Wyeth, where shallow soils can't support large conifers that absorb the sunlight poison oak needs to survive.

"I've seen it much worse in California than here," says Robin Dobson, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area botanist. "But in this area in the Gorge, it's very extensive."

It's serves no specific ecological purpose, Dobson says. Deer will eat the chutes. Some birds will eat the seeds. But it's a native plant to the western U.S. so no public agency is supposed to eradicate it.

As most people know, it spreads through a resin, called Urushiol, which can absorb secretly absorb into your skin and come back out in a wailing, red rash.

Your dog can run into a patch of it and, without knowing it, you can pet him and get it. It can absorb into your boots, never bothering to mention that it's there, and come out on your skin months to a year later. Or a towel.

Now I've heard stories about this stuff. About the Hood River guy who had it so bad, the only remedy he could think of was to drive into the woods, strip naked, and lay in a lawn chair for three days while a lotion of some sort soaked into his skin.

Or the wilderness firefighter who breathed the smoke of it in her lungs. For three weeks, she lay in a hospital bed, while her own immune system fought the poison out of her body.

Or maybe the worst poison oak story of them all: the girl who used the spade-shaped leaves for toilet paper.

Until now, however, it's never gotten me. I was one of those lucky few who could brush up against it, wade through it or grab it and never pay the consequences. I had that very temporary immunity to poison oak. But I made the common mistake of assuming it would never affect me.

Most, if not all of us, have a varying level of resistance to poison oak, says Dr. Luke Sloan, a Hood River dermatologist, who, during spring, sees two to three poison oak patients per week.

"Some people come to me and say 'I never get poison oak,'" Sloan says. "And I add 'not yet.' If you are exposed to poison oak, you will get it eventually. The first time you are exposed, your immune system gears up," he said. "It anticipates a future exposure. This is called 'delayed-type hypersensitivity.' In the second exposure, or in some people their third or tenth exposure, they develop the poison oak reaction."

A common poison oak myth is that the oil is what causes the itchy rash. Not true, says Sloan. That's your own body.

Poison oak has a resin on it called Urushiol, which is present at varying levels on every part of poison oak — including the stem in winter — all year long. Within the resin is a protein, that, when in contact with your skin will attach to the cell membrane, masking its identity from your own immune system.

And your immune system, the suspicious and inhospitable host that it is, now regards your own skin cell as a foreign invader. So it attacks the cell, sending all kinds of proteins and immuno-modulators to kill it off. The itchy rash you feel as a result, is that of your cells dying.

Fortunately most of us have at least one "Get out of poison oak free" cards. Unfortunately we use them - sometimes without even knowing it, like drying off after a shower with a towel somebody with poison oak used, then placed on the towel rack.

"It's not your immunity wearing down," Sloan says. "It's your immunity wearing up."

From that point on, your immune system is training, preparing for its next battle with poison oak.

Most Web sites and support groups say you might be able to keep it from absorbing into your skin if you can wash it off within 20 minutes of exposure. Some say to wash with cold water.

With this, Dr. Sloan agrees, but says it probably doesn't matter if you wash with cold or hot water. "Once it binds with your skin, you are not getting it off," he says.

One would think science would have produced some kind of cure-all therapy to something as prevalent and miserable as poison oak.

Wilderness firefighters use Technu, but that works only if you apply it before contact or very soon after. Doctors will sometimes inject poison oak patients with a cortisone shot, if the malady warrants it.

But the best therapy, Sloan says, might be patience and willpower combined with an oatmeal bath and cool water. Soap and water, he believes will work just as well as Technu. The best therapeutic measure a person can take, is figure out what it looks like.

"A lot of people have no idea what it looks like," he says. "And they've got it."

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