Poison oak isn't carried by smoke

It has always been my understanding that it's very dangerous to burn poison oak because you can inhale it. With all the wildfires in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties, are we at risk of getting poison oak simply by breathing this smoky air?

— Linda R., Medford

Breathe easy may be the wrong thing to say in these smoky conditions, Linda, but you can relax knowing that these wildfires are not likely to cause a poison oak outbreak among the general population, firefighters excluded.

Oregon Department of Forestry spokesman Brian Ballou doesn't recall there being a lot of poison oak in the area affected by the Big Windy fire along the Lower Rogue River — probably because of the elevation — but he said there is or was a lot of it northwest of Sunny Valley where the 2,400-acre Brimstone fire burned.

Firefighters or anyone who comes in direct contact with the plant is likely to develop a localized allergic reaction in the form of an itchy red rash, but any respiratory problems are the result of smoke inhalation and not specifically the burning poison oak, according to Dr. Kevin Parks, medical director of the Allergy and Asthma Center of Southern Oregon.

"It's no worse to burn poison oak than it is to burn thatch or wood products," Parks said.

He went on to explain that the rhus antigen, the oil-based antigen on the plant, does not aerosolize when the plant burns.

Dr. Kent DeYarman of DeYarman Allergy & Asthma Clinic LLC agreed with Parks, adding that sometimes larger ash particulates can carry the oil and, if they make contact with your skin, may cause a reaction, but proximity is key in this scenario.

"If you go out on your property and cut an acre of poison oak, and you are tending the burn pile so you have a high exposure to the ash falling on your skin, you could develop a rash, but that does not apply to these forest fires at all," Parks said.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com.

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