Yesterday afternoon I went for a hike with my dog. Sadie had been giving me Sad Eyes all day while I worked, so in addition to my normal dog walking duties I decided to take her, the only one of our dogs who actually enjoys the outdoors, for a swim. (I’ve tried taking the other two dogs to the river, and they both look at me like, Are you kidding? Take me back home and feed me on my nice, soft bed.) There’s a trail near our house that’s easier than I’d like, but I like to go there with Sadie because the trail sidles up to the river in several places. Sadie lives to swim, and I felt like enjoying some fresh forest air, so I loaded up my backpack with my first aid supplies and a water bottle, and we were off.
Living in Northern California, I’ve become very aware of the presence of poison oak. It exists everywhere, along trails and in woods, in every wild nook and undisturbed cranny. In fact, along the trail we walked along, hoards of mature poison oak plants could be seen in either direction. The main trail was well-cleared for several feet in width, so I wasn’t really concerned about rubbing up against any of these plants, whose torturous oils are belied by their seemingly benign appearance.
As Sadie and I hoofed it along the trail, I noticed several stinging nettles growing at the trail’s edges. Nettles have many purposes in herbal medicine and can also be eaten, so I decided to gather some of these weeds and take them home to dry. (I’ll probably write more about my nettle adventures later.) I didn’t have any gloves, so I used a plastic bag to handle the nettles as I picked them. I placed the weeds in my backpack in the main compartment, zipping up my treasures for the ride home. Once I got home, I took my bounty out of my pack and arranged them to dry.
About an hour later, I started feeling itchy on my upper right arm. Thinking nothing of it, I scratched it a few times, providing relief. But then it started to get worse, and that’s when I noticed it: a patch of raised, red bumps and welts on my upper arm. Less than thrilled, I knew it was poison oak, but I just couldn’t think of where it had come from. I had kept a close watch on Sadie so I knew she hadn’t run into any poison oak, and I was positive I didn’t touch any while I was picking nettles.
And then it hit me: I had forgotten to look under my backpack when I set it down to place the nettles inside.The right strap must have touched some small poison oak plants along the path’s edge, and I hadn’t even thought to check before plopping my pack down in the dirt. What an ass. After I remembered this, it seemed like the itching worsened even more, so I hightailed it for the nearest drugstore and bought my two new best friends: Tecnu Cleanser and Anti-Itch Gel.
If you’ve had poison oak (or ivy), then you know all too well what that kind of itching is like. You feel possessed, and it’s all you can think about. Suddenly you understand how a dog in a trap could be compelled to chew its own leg off. As I stood in line waiting to make my purchase, I could feel the heat rising on my arm, the itch consuming my every thought. It wasn’t chew-my-arm-off horrible just yet, but I knew it was only going to get worse.
I raced home and washed my arm in the Tecnu Cleanser at least three times, hoping for the best, and then I applied the Calagel, Tecnu’s anti-itch gel brand. As I sat back and waited for the sweet relief, I pondered what ingredients these little bottles of magic contained. I figured that this level of discomfort must require some serious chemicals in its treatment, so I Googled the products to find their ingredient lists, which follow:
Deodorized Mineral Spirits, Water, Propylene Glycol, Octylphenoxy-Polyethoxyethanol, Mixed Fatty Acid Soap and Fragrance
Active Ingredients: Benzethonium Chloride (0.15% – First aid antiseptic), Diphenhydramine HCl (2% – Topical analgesic/antihistamine), Zinc Acetate (0.215% – Skin protectant)
Inactive Ingredients: Disodium EDTA, Fragrance, Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose, Menthol, Polysorbate 20, Water (Purified), Sodium Metabisulfite
Yup, they’re just as chemically as I had suspected, which confirmed that as I was rinsing my itchy rash down the drain, I was washing it down with some nasty stuff. As someone who normally takes great care to keep bad chemicals out of the sewer and thus out of our waterways, this knowledge brought me no small measure of guilt. But what’s a super-itchy girl with an oozing rash to do? I’m all for herbal and homeopathic remedies under normal conditions, but I consider poison oak to be a special occasion, though not in a steak dinner kind of way. I was in pain, and the gravity of the situation called for equally extreme measures.
I washed my dog in Tecnu as well, just to be safe. For a dog who loves the river so much, Sadie really hates baths. But she took it like a champ, and when it was over I felt a little less wary about giving her snuggles, albeit only with my left arm. The other two dogs looked suspicious, as if their turn might be next, avoiding eye contact like their third grade teacher had just asked their class about the homework they didn’t do last night. I guess thousands of years of natural selection has made their instinct for self-preservation greater than their concern for the person who feeds them.
As I write this, I’m soaking my backpack in Tecnu. As the suspected culprit in this escapade, it certainly didn’t avoid a thorough washing in what I’m currently thinking of as my Miracle Soap. But really, it wasn’t my backpack’s fault. If I hadn’t been such a lazy hiker who was too lame to check where I was setting my stuff, then I probably deserve a good rash. If I’d been more careful in the first place, I wouldn’t have to partake in the chemical bath otherwise known as Tecnu.
The moral of the story is, don’t be lazy about checking for poison oak while out on a trail. But if you accidentally find yourself in a situation where your environmental concern for our waterways has been compromised by an itch that makes amputation seem like a viable option, then for crap’s sake, get yourself some Tecnu.