April 20, 2018
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Be wary of ticks, snakes, poison oak this spring

Martha Thierry | Detroit Free Press
Martha Thierry | Detroit Free Press
Know the differences among poison ivy (top), poison sumac (middle) and poison oak so you can spot them while out on the trail.
By Marek Warszawski, McClatchy-Tribune

One likes to pierce the skin, one gets on the skin and one burrows under it. For those heading outdoors this time of year, all three are best avoided.

Talking about rattlesnakes, poison oak and ticks. Or, as I like to call them, the Three Evils of Spring.

Let’s start with rattlesnakes, if only because they’re the most feared — and potentially lethal — of the trio.

Humans aren’t the only species that likes to venture out in the sun. Snakes do as well, and everyone should know how to tell apart California’s only venomous native snake from the many species of harmless ones.

Menacing as they might be, rattlesnakes typically don’t strike unless provoked. But when they do, the result can be serious injury. According to the California Poison Control Center, rattlesnakes account for more than 800 bites each year in the U.S., mostly between April and October, with one to two deaths.

For outdoors enthusiasts, rattlesnakes are one of the three evils of spring.

There are several types of rattlesnakes, so don’t bother looking for specific markings. Instead, look for the triangle-shape head that’s much thinner in front than in back. The eyes are hooded with elliptical pupils, and there are distinct openings between the nostrils and eyes that sense heat.

The presence (or sound) of a rattle at the end of the tail is a dead giveaway, of course, but rattles are not always present. Sometimes they break off and in juvenile snakes are not always developed.

The California Department of Fish and Game recommends several ways to avoid getting bit by a rattlesnake. Chief among them, at least in my experience, is to always step on logs and large rocks and never over them, where snakes can be hiding on the other side. Wearing boots with covered ankles and loose-fitting long pants is a good idea too, especially if hiking through tall grass, weeds or underbrush.

Rattlesnakes are usually at ground level, but I’ve also encountered them hanging from tree branches as well as floating in the San Joaquin River above Millerton Lake. Yes, rattlesnakes can swim.

In the event of a bite, stay calm and wash the affected area with soap and water before seeking the nearest medical attention. Don’t apply a tourniquet, cut out the wound with a knife or use your mouth to suck out the venom. That stuff only works in movies.

Unlike rattlesnakes, poison oak may not kill you. But it sure can make life a living hell.

Found in ground cover as a shrub or a vine intertwining with harmless plants, poison oak causes an allergic reaction to an estimated 80 percent of the humans it directly contacts. The rash and associated itching, caused by an oily toxin called urushiol, usually lasts about 10 days.

The first step in avoiding poison oak is knowing how to identify it, and the old saying “Leaves of Three, Let Them Be” is as good a starting place as any, even though there are many three-leaf plants besides poison oak.

Its leaves are 1-4 inches long and smooth with toothed or scalloped edges, resembling those of a real oak. They can be glossy or dull and change colors depending on the season. In early spring, the young leaves are green or sometimes light red. In late spring and summer, the foliage is glossy green; in fall, most or all leaves turn orange or red.

According to researchers at University of California, Davis, the best way to prevent skin irritation after being exposed to poison oak is to pour rubbing alcohol over the affected area followed by a good dousing of cold water. To prevent a rash, do this within 5 minutes of being exposed. If that’s not possible, washing the skin with ample cold water will dilute the oily toxin and help keep it from spreading. Be aware that your clothes may be contaminated, too.

While rattlesnakes and poison oak are relatively easy to avoid, ticks are more insidious. These tiny arachnids hang out at ground level, just waiting for an unlucky host to come along. Once a tick bites and buries its head in the host’s skin, whatever diseases or maladies it carries can be transmitted. And it’s a pretty long list.

People can reduce exposure by avoiding grassy, shrubby areas and wearing long pants tucked inside the socks to prevent ticks from crawling up open pant legs. Clothes treated with Permethrin act as a repellent, and light-colored fabrics allow you to more easily see ticks and brush them off before they burrow.

When tramping through heavy tick areas, stop often and give yourself a once-over to make sure there aren’t any unwanted hitchhikers. But if you do discover one, remove it promptly with fine-tipped tweezers. Grasp the body as close to the skin as possible and detach with a steady upward force. Just don’t crush or twist the tick. Because if you do there’s a good chance it will break apart, leaving part of its mouth in the wound along with the infective fluids.

There are several homespun methods for tick extraction, including the head of a hot match, nail polish, Crisco and even peanut butter. But such treatments can cause the tick to release more fluids into the bite and are best avoided.

Hopefully, this information helps you avoid the Three Evils of Spring. If not, a bad experience is often the best teacher.

© 2012 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

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