As you head into the great outdoors, don’t forget your first aid kit. Many natural remedies work wonders to treat minor injuries, but the key is knowing when to use them and when to proceed directly to the doctor. From bug bites to poisonous plants, learn the what, when, why and how of natural first aid.
Bites and Stings
Some pests are more than mere annoyances. Ticks can transmit Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, mosquitoes may be carriers of the West Nile virus and some spiders are poisonous. Anyone who becomes ill after a bite or develops a wound that does not heal, a rash or flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills and body aches should seek medical attention to rule out serious disease.
Another potential problem is allergic reaction. Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening allergy that requires emergency medical attention. Symptoms include difficulty breathing, rapid pulse, dizziness, weakness and pale, cool skin. Individuals with known insect allergies should carry an epinephrine (adrenaline) syringe with them whenever there is potential to be stung.
When a bee stings, the venom pouch is dislodged and remains with the stinger. If the stinger is still in the skin, it should be scraped away rather than tweezed because tweezers may squeeze out more venom. If the bite came from a tick that is still attached, tweezers may be used to remove it. Grasp the head of the tick as close to the skin as possible and exert slow backward pressure until it is released.
First aid for bites and stings starts with a cold compress to reduce pain and swelling (wrap a wet towel around ice cubes and apply to the affected area). Onion can also reduce inflammation because it contains the anti-inflammatory bioflavonoid quercitin and enzymes that break down prostaglandins, which are chemicals released by your body to signal pain. Cut a raw onion in half and place the freshly cut side on the affected area.
Other options include lavender essential oil, which can be used both as an antiseptic and an anti-inflammatory agent to relieve pain and itching, and a paste of baking soda and water, which is alkaline and can neutralize acid in insect venom. If you are in the wilderness, applying mud to the area can help draw out the insect venom and sooth inflammation. Several itchy bites can be soothed by a vinegar bath (add 32 ounces of vinegar to a tepid bath and soak for 30 minutes).
Plantain, known botanically as Plantago major, is an edible and medicinal plant. The leaves will help draw inflammatory secretions and insect venom from the skin and promote healing. This plant also has anti-microbial and pain-relieving properties, so it is useful for treating cuts and scrapes in the wilderness. It grows close to the ground and has unevenly toothed leaves, four to ten inches long, growing from a central root. If you can correctly identify this plant, make a poultice by chewing or mashing the leaves into a pulp. Apply it directly to the bite or sting until the pain subsides.
Homeopathic remedies may be taken orally as sublingual pellets and or used topically in creams and ointments. Homeopathic creams are usually not antibiotic, so if the skin has been broken, it is best to use the remedy orally rather than topically.
Remedies for bites and stings include Ledum when the person feels chilly and the wound is inflamed, swollen, cold and numb; Apis Mellifica for stinging, burning pain with rapid swelling, especially if the sting came from a bee; Carbolic Acid for itchy blisters and hives; and Arnica Montana when soreness is a symptom.
Cuts and Scrapes
When the skin surface is broken, bacteria can create an infection. Signs include fever, pain, redness, swelling, local warmth, red streaks near the injury and pus with a foul odor. Medical attention must be sought immediately if any of these symptoms are present, or if pieces of skin are missing, bleeding does not stop, the skin was broken by a dirty or rusty object, the object is still imbedded, or the cut is more than skin deep or the result of a puncture wound.
To stop bleeding, elevate injured areas and apply sterile gauze and gentle pressure. If you’re in the wilderness, spider webs can help stop bleeding, but make sure the spider has vacated the premises.
Cuts and scrapes must be cleaned to remove debris and prevent infection. Regular soap and water are effective, but calendula succus, a plant extract in alcohol, is also a good choice and can be used full strength to clean wounds and promote healing. Other topical antiseptics include lavender essential oil and tea tree oil. Unlike most essential oils, both can be used full strength, up to five drops at a time. Cover clean wounds with sterile dressings and change them daily.
Herbal creams or salves containing aloe vera, calendula, comfrey, and/or echinacea can be applied to encourage healing. Once the wound closes, dressings are not needed and vitamin E oil may be applied if no signs of infection are present, to support skin repair and reduce scarring.
Homeopathic remedies include Hypericum for sharp and shooting pain; Ledum for puncture wounds and cuts that are swollen, red, numb and cold; Phosphorus for small wounds that bleed heavily; and Aconitum for severe bleeding, anxiety and fear. Additionally, Arnica Montana can be taken for any shock or trauma.
Burns can be categorized by the degree of damage. First degree burns feel hot to the touch. The skin is pink to red, dry and there may be some swelling. Second degree burns are associated with blisters; red, raw skin and extreme pain. Third degree burns may have little to no pain because the nerves have been damaged and skin is usually white or black.
First degree burns are the only ones that can be safely treated with first aid. Second and third degree burns, and all chemical and electrical burns, should receive emergency medical care. Consult a doctor if burns involve the face, eyes, neck, hands, feet, genitals or large areas of skin.
To treat minor burns and sunburn, immediately place the affected area under cold water or apply a cold compress until the pain subsides. Then use any of the following natural remedies to reduce inflammation, applying several times per day as needed: aloe vera gel, cooled peppermint tea bags, yogurt or sliced raw potato.
Homeopathic remedies for burns include Arsenicum Album for burned skin that is red, scaly, swollen and sensitive; Urtica Urens for burns that have a stinging or prickly feeling; and Cantharis for swollen burns with smarting pain, especially if the pain causes anger or irritability.
If bruising is not the result of local injury, it may be the result of serious medical conditions such as hemophilia, anemia or certain cancers, or a side effect of some prescriptions including aspirin, antidepressant and asthma medications. Individuals with a tendency to bruise easily should consult with their doctor. If bones may be broken or if there has been severe trauma to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, back or pelvis, increased risk of internal bleeding requires a trip to the emergency room.
First aid for bruises starts with elevation and a cold compress to reduce swelling, applied for 20 minutes at a time and repeating every hour as necessary. Once swelling and inflammation have gone down, apply heat to the area to stimulate blood flow and tissue repair.
The most common homeopathic remedy for bruises is Arnica Montana but others may be helpful too: Ruta Graveolans for bruises over bones such as shins, knees and elbows; Hypericum for bruises to sensitive areas such as eyes, fingertips, lips and nose; Ledum for bruises with extreme tenderness; and Rhus Toxicodendron for swelling and inflammation around soft tissue that feels stiff but better with movement.
Sprains and Strains
Sprains (injury to ligaments) and strains (muscular injury) are usually a result of stretching tissues beyond their normal range of motion. Symptoms include pain, swelling, bruising and reduced function. As soon as injury occurs, it is important to stop activity to prevent further trauma. If a sprain or strain results from a severe blow, numbness is present, fracture is suspected or function is totally lost (for example, not being able to walk after twisting an ankle), then medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.
Immobilization of the injured part, elevation and a cold compress can limit swelling of sprains and strains. Ice can be applied for 20 minutes on, then 20 minutes off, repeated as necessary to reduce pain and swelling. Once initial inflammation subsides, hydrotherapy can increase blood flow to injured areas, bringing nutrients necessary for tissue repair and removing inflammatory waste products. Alternate applications of a hot, moist towel for three minutes and a cold, wet towel for 30 seconds. Repeat for at least three full cycles, several times per day. Limit use of injured joints and muscles until fully healed to prevent chronic injury and inflammation.
Homeopathic remedies for sprains and strains include Rhus Toxicodendron for swollen and hot joints, especially stiff ones that feel better with movement; Ruta Graveolans for injuries around bones and joints that feel stiff and bruised; Bryonia alba for injured parts that are red, hot and swollen with stitching or tearing pain; and Arnica Montana, especially when a fall contributed to injury.
Contact with resin from Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac plants can cause allergic reactions and red, itchy rashes. Blisters may also appear, oozing and crusting until the skin is healed. Symptoms usually start a few hours after contact, or even a few days later.
Prevention is always best, so learn to identify poisonous plants common in areas where you spend time outdoors and wear long pants, shoes and socks to minimize exposure. Poison Oak is more common in the Western United States and like Poison Ivy, leaves come in groups of three. Poison Sumac has seven to 13 leaves per group and like Poison Ivy, may have white berry clusters.
The first intervention is removal of the plant resin, within 15 minutes or as soon as possible. Launder all clothes and wash potentially affected skin with soap and water. Apply a cold compress to the affected area to reduce inflammation and discomfort. To relieve itching, apply aloe vera gel, calendula succus, cooked oatmeal or a sea salt compress (soak a cloth in a solution of 1 tablespoon salt per pint of water). Large rashes can be soothed by a vinegar bath or an oatmeal bath (run tepid bath water through a sock filled with raw oats).
Homeopathic remedies for rashes include Rhus Toxicodendron for restless patients with extremely itchy red blisters soothed by heat; Croton Tiglium for extremely itchy, dry red blisters accompanied by diarrhea; and Anacardium for itchy rashes with yellow discharge that feel better with warm water and for individuals who want to scratch their skin until it bleeds.
Natural First Aid Kit
Besides bandages, sterile gauze, scissors, tweezers and adhesive tape, pick remedies for your first aid kit that have several uses. My top six picks are lavender essential oil, calendula succus, aloe vera gel, arnica montana ointment, homeopathic Apis and rescue remedy, a combination homeopathic remedy usually found in liquid form which can be used to relieve anxiety associated with trauma. When making your first aid kit, consider where you plan to use it and tailor it to fit your needs.