Hauling compost, digging garden beds and wrangling ornery livestock are just a few of the farm and garden tasks that can be hard on your body. Even the healthiest homesteaders are susceptible to bee stings and sunburns. Fortunately, your kitchen and backyard are probably already stocked with a multitude of safe and effective cures for a number of minor woes. Here are 12 first-aid tips for ways to soothe everything from bug bites and banged-up shins to blisters, burns and back pain. These first-aid tips are adapted from 500 Time-Tested Home Remedies and the Science Behind Them, co-authored by Barbara Seeber, Barbara Brownell Grogan and me.
Poisonous Plants: Ivy, Oak and Sumac
Prevention. The best way to protect yourself from this itchy, blister-causing trio is to wear protective clothing, including pants, long sleeves and gloves, whenever you work in areas where these plants may grow. Anytime you think your skin or clothing may have made contact with their leaves, immediately remove and wash your clothing in hot water and take a shower. If you know your hands or arms touched the leaves, wash these areas as soon as possible with a skin cleanser, such as Tecnu, which is designed to remove the blister-causing urushiol oil that these plants produce. Some people are severely allergic to these plants, while others are totally immune. If you know you’re allergic, you may want to apply a preventive barrier cream, such as Ivy X Pre-Contact Skin Solution, before working outside.
Treatment. If you do develop a bad rash with blisters, follow these first-aid tips for making an oatmeal bath or oatmeal paste to relieve the itching. Oats (Avena sativa) have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Applied topically, oats moisturize the skin and decrease itching. To draw an oatmeal bath, pour 2 to 3 cups of rolled or colloidal oats into a sock, cloth, bag or bandana to contain the particles and help with cleanup. (You can make colloidal oats in your food processor by blending oats to a powder.) Place the sock in a tub full of warm water. Climb in and soak for at least 15 minutes. Avoid using soap, which will only dry and further irritate your skin.
To make an oatmeal paste, combine 1 tablespoon of colloidal oats with 1 teaspoon of baking soda. Gradually add just enough water to form a paste and mix well. Apply to irritated areas. After it’s dry, rinse the paste off with warm water.
Bug Bites and Stings
Treatment. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is anti-inflammatory, analgesic (pain-killing) and calming. Keep a frozen lavender-infused cloth or a simple lavender and baking soda paste on hand for the next time your path collides with a poisonous, panicky pollinator.
To make a lavender-infused frozen cloth, wet a washcloth with water and wring out the excess moisture. Squeeze 5 drops of lavender essential oil on the wet cloth, place it inside a resealable bag, and store it in the freezer. When you get stung, remove the cloth from the bag and apply it directly to the inflamed area. It will help reduce swelling and relieve pain.
You can also try a mixture of 3 drops of lavender essential oil and 1 teaspoon of baking soda, which is thought to help neutralize the acidic venom in bee and fire ant stings. Add enough water to the mixture to form a paste, and plaster the paste over the sting. Remove the paste after about 30 minutes or after it’s dry. Reapply as needed.
Plantain (Plantago major) is a common weed — not to be confused with the banana-like fruit — that contains pain-relieving, astringent and mildly antibacterial substances, a trio of traits that are beneficial for healing insect stings and minor abrasions. A 2012 study showed that skin tissue in mice healed faster when plantain was applied, compared with controls.
The next time you get a bug bite or small wound, gather five to 10 plantain leaves and mash them with your fingers to release the beneficial tannins. Apply the juicy pulp to the affected area for about 30 seconds. Repeat as needed.
Prevention. For gardeners, the main causes of burns are ultraviolet radiation (sunburn) and friction (blisters). You can prevent the former by wearing protective clothing, a floppy hat and sunscreen. Avoid the latter by wearing good gloves, using tools that fit you and the job at hand, and avoiding prolonged, repetitive movements. When preventative measures fail, however, try the first-aid tips below.
Treatment. Scientific studies show that honey, an ancient wound-healer, is antibacterial and speeds healing of burns better than conventional burn dressings containing silver sulfadiazine. Using a clean butter knife, spread organic, high-quality honey on a piece of sterile gauze large enough to cover the burn. Tape the edges of the gauze in place so the bandage is comfortable. After six hours, remove the dressing, gently rinse the skin, and reapply a fresh strip of the honey-coated gauze.
Tea (Camellia sinensis) compresses are a time-honored treatment for sunburns. Tea is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial and astringent. Compared with black tea, green tea has stronger antioxidant and antibacterial effects. If you want to use an herbal tea, German chamomile is antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and wound-healing.
To make a tea compress, bring a half-cup of water to a boil. Pour the boiling water into a mug and submerge the tea bag of your choice (green, black or chamomile). Let cool to room temperature. Dip a clean cloth into the tea and lay the cloth on your burn until pain subsides.
Aloe (Aloe vera) is anti-inflammatory, promotes circulation, and inhibits bacterial and fungal growth. Most studies show that aloe speeds healing of burns and wounds. Keep an aloe plant on your windowsill so you can squeeze the fresh gel from a leaf, or look for a product that’s at least 90 percent pure aloe. Apply pure aloe gel to the burn, or blend 1 tablespoon of gel with 10 drops of lavender essential oil.
Blisters — to pop or not? The skin on top of a blister and the fluid underneath protects the fragile new skin below. The fluid absorbs into skin on its own, so the general rule is not to puncture. On the other hand, if the blister is large, irritating or painful, you may wish to drain it. To do so, wash your hands and sterilize a needle by heating it in a flame. After it cools, insert the needle into the blister and gently massage out the fluid. Do not remove the flap of skin. Apply an antibiotic cream or ointment, and then cover the area with a bandage. Call your doctor if signs of infection develop, such as yellow discharge or red lines leading away from the blister.
Cuts and Scrapes
Treatment. Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) leaves and roots contain allantoin, which helps the regeneration of new skin cells. Research has shown that abrasions heal faster with topical comfrey relative to a placebo.
To use, wash the site of your wound thoroughly. Harvest a comfrey leaf and rough it up with your fingers. Place this backyard bandage against the wound. Secure it with a clean, damp cloth. Leave it in place for an hour before removing.
Sanitizing wounds with soap and clean, cool water is sufficient for minor scrapes and cuts. Stronger solutions, such as hydrogen peroxide or iodine, can actually irritate a cut, harm tissue and slow the healing process.
A 2012 clinical trial found that when virgin olive oil was applied topically to arthritic knees, it provided superior pain relief compared with an ointment containing the anti-inflammatory drug piroxicam. Turmeric and ginger are traditional Indian analgesic and anti-inflammatory agents. Cayenne contains capsaicin, which acts as a counterirritant (it initially causes a mild burning sensation, but then silences local pain nerves). Studies have shown that topical capsaicin reduces pain from osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and back pain.
Treatment. For a pain-relieving poultice, blend 1 tablespoon each aloe gel and unfiltered, extra-virgin olive oil, 2 teaspoons each ground turmeric and ground ginger, and 1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper. Spread the paste over the painful area. Hold it in place with cloth or plastic wrap, and remove after 30 minutes. Turmeric will stain clothing and temporarily tinge your skin. Wash your hands and avoid touching your eyes or other sensitive areas after handling cayenne powder.
Prevention. Working outside during summer months can heighten the risk of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Garden in the relative cool of morning and evening. Wear thin, loose, light-colored clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and gloves. Drink plenty of water. Keep an eye out for warning signs of heat exhaustion, such as dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting. Rather than looking flushed, your skin may be pale, warm and damp.
Treatment. At the onset of symptoms, the best strategy is to quit working, move to the shade or indoors, remove clothing, and drink fluids. Go easy on yourself, and remember: Tomorrow is another day.
Linda White, M.D., usually remembers to wear gardening gloves when plunging her hands in soil. She keeps a potted aloe plant and lavender essential oil on hand for minor injuries.