Poison Ivy Pondering

Two years ago, my family spent a summer sleeping in an old tobacco barn, with an outdoor kitchen setup under a tarp. We moved into this cozy space at the beginning of April. After about a week of enjoying our kitchen, we began noticing little vines popping up out of the ground EVERYWHERE. Much to my dismay, it was Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans. Poison Ivy is in the Anacardiaceae family, which also includes cashew, pistachio, mango, and sumac.

…Now, early on in my plant learning days, I was taught that it is rude to name a plant as “poison”. Would you want to be referred to as “The Bringer of Harm”? (One friend read this and said, “Yes, I absolutely want to be named The Bringer of Harm!”) As I understand it, these thoughtful incites stem from the late Frank Cook*, who was a teacher of some of my teachers. He proposed the name Sister Ivy, which is what many folks call it today. I think it’s a nice sentiment, but my partner also brings up the practical reality, “Well, it’s called ‘poison’ to let people know not to touch it. If you introduce a plant as Sister Ivy, it makes you want to set up camp there!” Both perspectives appreciated and noted! I’ve taken to affectionately calling this plant P.Ivy (Pie-vee)…

Because our kitchen was on the only flat spot available, we took on the job of pulling out the roots. I dedicated some gloves specifically for the job, marked them with cool “P.Ivy Pull” knuckle tats, wore long sleeves and pants, and took on the job for one afternoon. I hauled all the roots about 100 ft up the road and dumped them, with apologies to that immediate area. To my surprise, two years later, there is no sign of it taking off at that spot (perhaps because it was full shade?). In more recent P.Ivy pulls, I’ve taken to burning it, while being careful to not inhale any of the smoke. It is highly preferable to pull P.Ivy in the early spring when the leaves are small and red. At this time, it is easier to handle, as opposed to when the leaves are bigger. (Many agriculture departments warn to never remove P.Ivy by hand or burn it, because they don’t want people to get hurt. But, I trust that you have a brain and you can be cautious and logical. It’s nice to not use toxic chemicals, the real poisons agricultural departments could probably focus on…)

The old saying, “Leaves of three; leave it be” is all about P.Ivy. (But don’t forget the other half of this saying, “Leaves of three; might be a berry!” referring to beloved blackberries, raspberries, thimbleberries, etc.). P.Ivy grows as a vine, that might appear as a bush, or even a tree if it’s climbed high enough. The two lower leaves often resemble a mitten. The center leaf is more extended, while the lower two leaves connect directly to the stem. The leaves often have quite the shine to them, often with reddish hues. The vine is hairy (so is Virginia Creeper). It can take many forms, so rather than writing every identification variable here, have someone introduce you to it. It’s definitely worth knowing!

P.Ivy presents as a fierce defender of wild spaces. It thrives on the edges of disturbed areas that have been cleared for human activity, as if to say, “STOP! Go no farther!” It covers the topsoil, offering security as it recovers from destruction. I often see it’s fat furry vine climbing up the biggest trees in a space; protecting the elders, I assume. Botanical descriptions write that it chooses the big trees for their solid support, so perhaps I am anthropomorphizing? But I am not the only one who sees P.Ivy as an aggressive guardian…

In 1966, DC Comics introduced the Batman supervillian Dr. Pamela Lillian Isley or, better known as, Poison Ivy. She is a Gotham City botanist and biochemist, as well as a victim of scientific experimentation, who is passionate about environmentalism and ecological extinction. She exudes plant tactics and toxins in her endeavors to protect endangered species, and has a strong preference for plants over humans. I think she’s pretty rad.

But back to the plant…Beyond protecting undomesticated spaces from the human nuisance, P.Ivy’s white berries are an important food source among big and small birds, raccoons, muskrats, as well as white-tailed deer (domesticated goats and pigs will also eat it). The seeds are designed to be eaten; they sprout after digestion softens the seed coat, and birds might disperse them along the edges of the next homestead. The berries are rich in fat and last long into the winter; perfect for sustaining the migrating birds in the fall and resident birds through the cold months.

Some folks say that only humans react to P.Ivy, however, I have found this rash on my puppy’s belly after she’s been in a P.Ivy patch: looks a lot like a reaction to me! Since puppyhood, she has grown more fur on her abdomen and doesn’t seem to react. So perhaps it is our bare skin that makes us particularly vulnerable.

I experience pretty extensive rashes about three days after I contact the plant, covering significant portions of my body for 3-4 weeks. It’s annoying, and since I work as a massage therapist, I feel a lot of pressure to not get a rash, assuming my clients prefer to avoid my oozy dermatitis. Thus remedies for the rash have become an in-depth personal experiment of mine, starting back 10 years ago when I first began experiencing outbreaks.

P.Ivy contains an irritating substance called urushiol, which causes the allergic reaction. Urushiol is an oily mixture of organic compounds in the sap of the plant, found in all parts, above ground and underground. The urushiol binds with the proteins in the fatty cells beneath your epidermis. This oil remains potent for a long time after it has left the plant. For example, if you touch the plant with gloves, and then touch those gloves three months later, there’s a good chance you will react. Be mindful of this with firewood! And your furry friends who run indiscriminately through the woods! Skin is often not initially sensitive to urushiol, but apparently sensitivity builds up with exposure. This may explain why I never had a rash until I was in my early 20s. As a kid, I surely came in contact with it, spending many of my days playing on the edges of a young, disturbed forest. Though I was spared in my youth, children can indeed react. And it is possible to have a systemic allergic reaction, at any age. These photos show the 3 week progression of one of my rashes. (Google “poison ivy rash” if you really want to cringe.)

Preventing a P.Ivy Rash:

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially with this rash! I have four things to propose as an act of preventing a P.Ivy rash:

1. Awareness. It may seem simple, but watching my steps and avoiding P.Ivy really is the best way to not get a rash. In our culture, we are often not used to watching where we step. For much of my life, I bulldozed through the day with my head in the clouds. But when my love affair with plants began, I suddenly found myself acutely aware of every footfall.

2. Wash with soap ASAP! If you’ve been exposed, scrub the affected area for at least 30 seconds. Hot water might help, though urushiol has been shown to withstand heat over 300 degrees C, so maybe it doesn’t matter? Apparently 50% of the urushiol absorbs into the skin within 10 minutes! So don’t dilly-dally.

Probably the most thorough soap available for P.Ivy exposure is called Tecnu Poison Ivy & Oak Scrub. It’s an exfoliant soap specific for removing urushiol. It’s also a little pricey. Dawn soap and it’s generic equivalents also work well. These are gnarly degreasers and thus theoretically remove the urushiol oil. If I’m exposed, I typically use Dawn to wash myself, the dog, or a tool that may have come in contact with P.Ivy. Or I might use other “Poison Ivy specific soaps” that include…

3. Jewelweed. This luscious, water-loving plant is often found growing very close to P.Ivy. Where it grows, it is prolific. It’s gooey juices, when applied before or immediately after contact with P.Ivy prevent a rash from forming. The late James Duke wrote, “I treat my students to a dramatic little demonstration: I find [poison ivy] and apply its juice to the sensitive undersides of both my wrists. A minute or two later, I wipe one wrist with a ball of crushed jewelweed leaves and stems. Three days later, the wrist that I didn’t treat with jewelweed shows the typical itchy, blistery poison-plant rash. The wrist rubbed with jewelweed invariably shows much less of a rash, and sometimes none at all.”** Now that is commitment to the educational process! James Duke also notes that Dr. Robert Rosen isolated an active ingredient in Jewelweed that binds to the same molecular sites on the skin as urushiol, though I don’t have more info on this “active constituent”.

Whenever I am out and about, and suspect I may have contacted P.Ivy, I roll and squish Jewelweed leaves in between my hands and rub the abundant juice all over my body. Some people say they also get helpful results using Jewelweed on an active rash, but it has never worked for me once the rash is apparent. As a preventative though, I am confident in it’s ability. It may not completely prevent the rash, but it will significantly limit the size of the rash. Many P.Ivy soaps commercially available include Jewelweed as a primary ingredient. I have made extracts with alcohol and water, but I strongly feel the fresh plant juice works best. This could be frozen in ice cubes for the winter months.

4. Eating P.Ivy. Please read thoroughly before you go out and eat a handful of those shiny leaves! When I first began reacting to P.Ivy, I knew some folks who ate the leaves in spring to reduce allergic reactions. One friend would go out and pull P.Ivy bare-handed after these trials, swearing by it’s success. At the time, I was too scared to try. However, after becoming a massage therapist, I’m desperate to avoid the rashes, which were increasingly consuming my life each summer. So I tried it, had amazing results, and have now completed my third spring of eating P.Ivy. I know 6 other people who’ve done this with no hiccups, but I have also heard vague stories of a “friend of a friends of a friend” ending up in the hospital from doing this. Because there is certainly some risk involved, I let those I live with know what I am doing, just in case it goes badly and I need help. That said, here’s how I go about it…

In early spring, I consume an “encapsulated” small tip of a young leaf once per day, for 15 days. As I understand it, the urushiol doesn’t stand a chance against stomach acid, so I am most concerned about contact before it reaches the stomach. To avoid contact, I wrap the leaf tip in a bit of bread (mushy wonder bread works well for this purpose), and then I swallow this lump whole. I repeat this for 15 days and call it good for the year. For me, this approach works really well and has been an absolute GAME CHANGER! Since doing this, I have not had the large rashes I was accustomed to. I still occasionally get little dots here or there, but nothing like I had previously experienced. (However, I am still not confident enough to perform a bare-handed P.Ivy pull!)

It is possible that the immunity gained from this 15 day process will last longer than a year. In fact, before I began my P.Ivy consumption this spring, I did get a teenny-tiny rash on my leg that only lasted about 3 days. So it’s possible I could cease the once a year process and the results would last from previous years. But I haven’t tried because I don’t want to risk ending up with large rashes again.

Please, please note: there are safety concerns here, use this info at your own risk!

[An alternative to eating P.Ivy is to drink milk from a goat that eats P.Ivy. This obviously requires knowing the goat whose milk you are drinking, and following it around to see if it is eating P.Ivy. I have heard of it working well, and not really working at all. Probably depends on how much P.Ivy is being consumed.]

I use all of these precautions regularly: I eat P.Ivy in the spring and I am pretty darn aware of which plants I am stepping on as I walk through life. If come in contact with P.Ivy, I immediately scrub with soap and water, followed by schmooshing Jewelweed all over the area. Because of these precautions, I now coexist more peacefully with this nosy neighbor.

External Treatments for P.Ivy Rash:

Keep in mind: for severe rashes, you can take Diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Corticosteriods can also be used topically and internally in extreme cases. For less severe, but still annoying, versions of P.Ivy rashes, many soothing remedies exist. Because the rash is hot and moist, we are primarily looking for things that drying and cooling. But mostly we are just looking for things that WORK!

It is worth emphasizing: Itching makes things worse (but it feels so good!!)! It’s hard to resist, and that’s why these anti-itch remedies are helpful…

1. Calamine lotion is probably the most well-known, for good reason, and can be found in any old store. It dries out the rash.

2. Clay is very similar to Calamine in it’s action. It is drying and pulling. You can get fancy and mix the clay with some anti-inflammatory tea for added medicine. Chickweed or Cleavers tea can be a nice anti-itch addition to the clay, or you can mix the clay with Witch Hazel extract. If you apply a loose bandage over the clay, this will slow the drying time, and thus lengthen the pulling time.

3. Yellow Dock leaves. Roll the fresh leaves between your hands to extract the juice, then apply to the rash. Yellow Dock leaf is astringent and anti-itch. It grows prolifically in many areas. In my experience, it brings relief for an hour or so…not the most impressive remedy, but helpful if you are out and about with nothing else.

4. P.Ivy Liniment. Tinctures make for effective P.Ivy liniments because alcohol is drying (any kind of alcohol: grain, cane, rubbing alcohol, etc). I wouldn’t want to use oil/salve on an oozy rash. All the herbs listed below could be used as single tinctures on the rash, but here is a formula that I make specifically for P.Ivy. The results typically last a few hours for me. I have received a lot of positive feedback on this blend:

  • 2 parts Licorice root tincture
  • 1 part Peach leaf tincture
  • 1 part Sassafras root tincture (*Note that this leaves a red hue on your skin)
  • Menthol (1/8 tsp per 4 oz liniment, the menthol crystals dissolve nicely into the liniment)

5. Really hot water. So I know this goes against our goal of finding something drying and cooling, but it feels so darn good and reduces the itching for hours! I will use water that is practically boiling, put it on a washcloth and hold on the rash for as long as I can stand it (about 30 seconds or so). Perhaps I am just burning the proteins in the fatty cells of my epidermis, and thereby countering urushiol’s action? I have no idea. The itching usually does start up again a few hours later, but the relief lasts a very notable amount of time. I have heard that in the long run, using heat is irritating and counters the healing progression. But since the relief is so satisfyingly immediate and long-lasting, I can’t resist.

Internal Treatments for P.Ivy Rash:

P.Ivy rashes appear as an oozy “damp-heat”. There are many herbs to address this, with either a tea or tincture. Here are some herbs that can be used alone or in formula:

1. Licorice root (Glycorrhiza glabra)- a strong anti-inflammatory and a potent anti-itch remedy. It clears heat and eliminates toxins like, in this case, urushiol. It is comparative to corticosteriods, because it actually decreases the clearance of cortisol from the body and contains other anti-inflammatory mechanisms. Because of these things, Licorice is a serious contraindication for many folks. Do your research (beyond this blog) and definitely avoid using it with any cardiac meds, diuretics, and many other pharmaceuticals. For the purpose of P.Ivy rashes, I use high doses of Licorice, which should only be taken short term (by everyone, not just those with contraindications). I learned this effective P.Ivy remedy when I apprenticed with Juliet Blankespor*** and was suffering from rash after rash. If this medicine is contraindicated, please know that using licorice topically is very safe, and helps a whole lot.

2. Japanese Honeysuckle flowers (Lonicera japonica)- used for “fire toxicity”, a term which could well define a P.Ivy rash. These flowers are a strong medicine for clearing heat and eliminating toxins. The vine is often flowering during my rash season, so it is convenient to throw them in my tea. This herb should only be used short term.

3. Elder flower (Sambucas canadensis)- a premier diaphoretic, often used in viral infections to help break a fever and bring about sweating. And while it may cause this effect, it is actually a cooling herb. For rashes, it can be used to “course the exterior” or push the rash out. It opens pores and dries dampness. Another flower commonly in season during prime P.Ivy rash time! This herb should only be used short term.

4. Cleavers herb (Galium aparine)- a cooling herb that drains dampness. It is a gentle anti-inflammatory and anti-itch aid. I use the plant in the spring and early summer, when I find it growing abundantly in the woods.

5. Burdock (Arctium lappa)- a cooling medicine to clear heat and transform damp. A supportive alterative/tonic as the body heals. I use the root (though I want to note that the seeds are probably more appropriate for this rash. Like Elder flower, the seeds are a cooling diaphoretic that help to push out rashes. This is fairly new info to me, so I haven’t had the chance to personally experiment with it).

These herbs could be used alone or as a formula. If I have a bothersome rash, I will make a daily quart of tea with something akin to:

  • 2 Tbsp dried Licorice root (decoct)
  • 2 Tbsp dried Burdock root (decoct)
  • a small handful of fresh Cleavers herb (infuse)
  • a small handful of fresh Honeysuckle flowers (infuse)

Again, this would be a short term formulas, used for only a week or two. All of these herbs could also be used in a tincture.

It is possible to find great relief from just applying the topicals listed above, but it is the internal herbs that really put a dent in the rash’s lifespan.

(For instructions on making herbal infusions, decoctions, and tinctures for liniment, refer to Issue #4)

If the rash doesn’t clear up, considering seeking out an acupuncturist. Or seek them out from the start! Chinese medicine can be incredibly effective for P.Ivy rashes.

Common Questions about P.Ivy:

Is this the same plant as Poison Oak?

Yes and no…Poison oak is in the same genus, Toxicodendron diversilobum or T. pubescens. The leaves also grow in threes, but typically have more of an oak leaf shape. As I understand it, T. diversilobum is common in much of western North America and T. pubescens grows mostly in southeastern North America, along with T. radicans. All of these Toxicodendron species contain urushiol oils, however the chemistry of those oils might be slightly different. Poison Ivy and Poison Oak are common names which can be used differently in different areas. The treatments spoken about here should work well for all of the above.

Is P.Ivy rash contagious?

No. If someone with a rash shakes another person’s hand, that will not spread the rash. However, if P.Ivy oils are on that person’s hand, then it is possible to spread the oils and cause a rash. That is not considered contagion, but just a transfer of the irritant in question.

Can the rash spread across my body?

We’re gonna call this answer a “No, BUT…”

The rash occurs where the body came into contact with the plant oils. Now, it may seem like the rash is spreading because it starts in one area, and then slowly creeps to other parts, but rashes can develop more slowly on different parts of the body, or there could be continued exposure by unknowingly touching clothing, tools, pets, or furniture with the oils present. So, if you have a rash on your wrist, and you have washed the area thoroughly, then you touch your leg, it is not possible to spread the rash in this way. However, if your arm came into heavy contact with P.Ivy, and you were unaware and go about touching other parts of your body, it is possible to spread the oils. The oozing from the rash does NOT spread the outbreak. It is only contact with the plant oils that cause a rash where the skin contacted the urushiol.

What should I do if P.Ivy oils get on my clothes?

Take them off and separate them from other clothes. Wash them and then hang in sun. The urushiol oils are very stable and last a long time, but it has shown to degrade in the sun’s UV rays.

*Frank Cook, http://www.plantsandhealers.org/about-frank-cook/

**James Duke, The Green Pharmacy, 1997

***Juliet Blankespor, https://chestnutherbs.com

Hot vs. Cold Therapy

One of the most common questions I get is “Should I ice it?” (referring to an injury or an ache). Ice is the typical recommendation from an emergency room, physical therapist, chiropractor, massage therapist, etc. When I worked in ambulances, we were quick to throw ice packs on anything that was hurting. It is a common go-to, but why? Let us take a look at the basic physiology of cold and hot therapies:

Cold therapy results in vasoconstriction; the narrowing of blood vessels due to the contraction of the tiny muscle tissue within the vessels. Blood flow decreases with vasoconstriction.

Hot therapy results in vasodilation; the widening of blood vessels due to the relaxation of smooth muscles that make up the vessel walls. Blood flow increases with vasodilation.

The idea behind putting ice on an injury is that cold therapy reduces inflammation by reducing blood flow. But acute inflammation, caused by excess blood flow, moves healing entities (like plasma and leukocytes) from blood into the injured tissue for timely repair. Slowing that process with cold therapy also slows recovery, extending healing time. Using ice on an injury is akin to using Tylenol for a fever; you are stopping the body’s internal fire, which is burning for a reason. Sometimes this internal fire may get out of hand, but rarely. Let’s not preemptively put out a useful fire.

I have heard many stories about people icing injuries for weeks (“because my doctor told me too”) and are then left wondering why that injury lingers. There is a general consensus in traditional Chinese medicine that cold therapy causes stagnation of blood and energy in an injured area, making it worse. Cold congeals, heat heals! (Unless it’s too hot, of course, then it burns!)

It can be especially disastrous to use cold therapy on an injury that involves tense muscle tissue (which is most injuries). Consider a strained tendon in an inflamed twisted ankle: that tendon might have torn and caused significant blood flow to the area. The tendon is also connected to a muscle, which is contractile tissue. Using ice on that inflamed area will cause that muscle, and all the other muscles exposed to the cold, to tighten. These muscles were probably already contracting to protect the injury, and now the cold might settle that tension into a deeper holding pattern. Right now, I am writing this in a cabin that is heated with a wood stove. I have not had a fire all day, and now as the sun disappears, a chill is setting in. My whole back is taut and begging, “Make a fire already!” Cold encourages great tension in muscular tissue, no doubt about it. When we use cold therapy on an injury to reduce inflammation, we may also unknowingly cause all of the surrounding muscles to contract. And sometimes that tension can result in chronic pain.

Tight muscles lack blood flow because as the muscle fiber tightens, it decreases or cuts off the small vessels that supply the tissue (vasoconstriction; the narrowing of blood vessels). This is fine if the muscle is going through normal movement of contract-release-contract-release. But if the muscle is held in a constant contraction, the blood flow is hindered for too long. What a rigid muscle really needs is oxygen, and how it gets that oxygen is through blood. So if someone uses cold therapy on an ache that is strictly due to muscular tension, then they are only prolonging the issue by further withholding adequate amounts of blood flow from the muscle tissue by vasoconstriction. In this case, heat therapy shines because it encourages vasodilation and brings in a rush of hemoglobin-rich blood. (However, in cases of severe chronic pain, even vasodilation may not bring relief to the tight muscle because the nervous system is in a holding pattern that tells the muscle to stay contracted. This is a whole other rabbit trail. My point is that heat is generally much more helpful than cold for tight muscles!)

While scientific explanations are hunky-dory, what I really care about are actual experiences.And to be honest, it can be really difficult to know what is actually helping an injury and what is just the natural healing process of the body. I have witnessed many folks work through various injuries, and because of these experiences I feel fairly certain that cold therapy has a high probability of slowing healing, and heat therapy has a high probability of not doing damage and potentially helping things along. This confidence comes from knowing loads of people who have iced injuries for significant periods of time and had delayed recoveries (and lingering issues with that area), and also from witnessing folks use heat therapy and see daily improvement in comfort and mobility. I have learned a lot from the weeks I have spent camping with injured friends or providing first aid at gatherings, because these are unique places where I am able to monitor an injury and its treatment for many days, in person.

So is cold therapy ever appropriate?

I think cold (or rather “cool”) therapy is appropriate for moderate burns, immediately after. That’s about the only localized injury I can think of that should receive “cool” therapy (though I’m sure there are considerations I am unaware of).

Another time when I use cold therapy is when it is what someone wants and is comfortable with. Finding physical and mental comfort is an important part of injury care. So if someone really wants ice because it’s what they are used to, or they want the numbing effect, then ice is what they get! The immediate use of ice might be fairly inconsequential in the healing process because the initial inflammation is a powerful force that is only slightly dampened by ice. It is the long term, daily use of ice that poses more a problem in my mind. If someone has an injury and doesn’t have the luxury of prioritizing their healing, then ice may be used to numb the pain and allow them to function (though ibuprofen would probably be more effective as an anti-inflammatory in many cases). BUT both ice and anti-inflammatory medication will likely extend the recovery time.

Most conventional knowledge says, “do not use hot therapy on anything that is already hot to the touch”. I disagree. Even when folks have hot and oozy wounds, my first recommendation is a warm epsom salt soak (because, to reiterate, inflammation is not the problem, but is rather addressing the problem/injury/infection/tissue degradation). Now I feel I should make an important clarification: in cases of inflamed injuries, I use WARM therapy, not hot therapy. I think it is possible to aggravate inflammation with too much heat. In general though, cold is much more likely to get stuck in the body and cause long term issues, and heat is not.

Now that I have fully poo-pooed cold therapy, I want to clarify that I have been referring strictly to localized treatments. Full body cold therapy can be quite invigorating and healthy! What I am talking about it exposing the full body to cold temperatures for short periods of time, like jumping in cold water and then warming up immediately after. I do not have a shower where I live, so my bath happens in a cold creek year round, and I am finding that my body is now adapting to cold temperatures with much more ease. When the body is exposed to cold suddenly, blood flow is directed toward the core, protecting vital organs. As the body warms, fresh blood is once again directed to the limbs and the lymph fluid is given a bit of a push to pump up immune activity. Or so I’ve been told. From my experiences, it doesn’t feel great in the moment (screaming helps you get through it), but it gives me a bit of a rush afterwards and my body feels refreshed and energized. So there, cold is not all bad!

What about alternating hot-cold therapy?

I don’t know! Contrast baths or compresses has been my recommendation for folks who seem set on ice being a part of their treatment plan; I guess its my way of sneaking heat into the equation. The idea is to alternate hot and cold every 3-15 minutes, and I can see how this might encourage blood movement in the same way as the full body cold therapy described above. However, I have heard murmurings that it can reduce nerve conduction and thus slow down the body’s healing mechanisms in the long run. Also, most descriptions of contrast therapy suggest ending with cold (“for the anti-inflammatory effect”), but you can guess my thoughts on that…

Overall, I prefer to stick with just heat.

There is also a line of thought out there that suggests any temperature extreme is jolting to the nervous system, hot or cold. If the goal is to relax muscles, these extremes cause stress because the body has to rapidly adapt, so the theory says. In light of this topic, I find it worth mentioning, but I don’t usually ascribe to this in my own practice. When I place a hot (but not too hot) towel on someone’s back, I typically hear a sigh of deep relaxation (and that is my response when it is done to me).

So, how can we apply heat?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are brief descriptions of methods that I enjoy…

*Please don’t burn yourself! Use a temperature that is comfortable.

  1. Hot soak– Take a hot bath, or visit a hot spring, or soak an extremity in a tub of hot water, or get yourself a hot tub, or get yourself a friend with a hot tub.

  2. Hot pack-Use a hot water-bottle, or a plug in heating pad, or those microwavable rice pack thingys, etc…

  3. Epsom salt compress or soak– Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, which helps soften tight muscles. Whenever possible I use it to enhance hot soaks or compresses.

    For a soak, add ½ cup epsom salt to a large dish tub of water.

    For a compress, add ½ cup epsom salt to 1 quart water.

    The salt will dissolve into hot water. Soak or apply the compress for 15-45 minutes. During massage sessions, I create compresses by sprinkling epsom salt on a wet towel, then exposing it to heat so the salt dissolves into the towel (I do this in a towel cabby, but a microwave would probably work too?). The hot towel can then be laid on a tension-filled area. I layer it with another hot towel, and then a dry towel to make the heat last.

  4. Castor oil pack– I don’t fully understand the magic of castor oil, but it is a beloved old folk remedy for just about anything, it seems. In this case, I am referring to applying it externally. It seems to move stagnation, circulation, and inflammation. Chemically, it is a source of ricinoleic acid, which is supposedly easily absorbed through the skin and has analgesic (pain relieving) effects. A pack is made by applying the oil to some cotton or wool fabric, placing the fabric on the intended area, and providing heat above the fabric to drive in the medicine. Keep in place for 30-90 minutes.

  5. Moxibustion– Moxa sticks are made of the herb Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) and are burned over the skin. It is used by acupuncturists, but can also be utilized at home. The heat from Moxa goes much deeper than a hot pack. There are many techniques for using Moxa, including burning the “cigar” over your area of interest or burning it over acupuncture points. If this interests you, do your own research and learn techniques from someone in your community. I think it is my favorite way to apply heat to the body.

  6. Steam-this can be a full body steam in the form of a sauna, or a localized steam. For a localized steam, boil water, then remove from burner and put the part of your body you want exposed over the pot, and wrap a towel around to trap in the steam. Fascial steams were once a big part of my life. I used to have acne and as a teenager, I would keep a spoon in the freezer because I thought, “Surely cold will reduce the inflammation!” Every night, I would hold it too the pimples, and it would temporarily reduce redness. In my early 20s, an herbalist friend recommended doing fascial steams. These were honestly borderline miraculous in helping to clear acne outbreaks. I didn’t use any herbs, just straight up steam for the vasodilation effect. (To get to the root of the issue, I used herbs internally).

May your injuries be ever warm, full of blood, and speedy to heal!

Resources: A Tooth From The Tiger’s Mouth by Tom Bisio.

Case Study: Dog Bit by Snake

After enjoying a refreshing dip in the cool creek on a hot summer day, my little family of three hiked back up the mountain to our home. While making our way through tall grass, the inevitable happened: my dog, Zygo, was bit by a Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix). I didn’t see the snake, and she didn’t yelp or jump, but as we walked along, she got uncharacteristically tired and was stopping to sit every 10 feet. Not knowing what was wrong, we began carrying her. Very quickly, the left side of her snout began to swell, and I thought, “Oh shit, snakebite!” Sure enough, two small puncture wounds, about an inch apart, became visible next to her nose.

Where we live, the Copperhead population is prolific and we see them all the time. Just over the ridge from our place, a whole holler is named for the Copperhead. Rattlesnakes live here too, but are not seen very often. This is why I assume Zygo met a Copperhead, even though I didn’t see the snake. 

Copperheads are pit vipers, along with rattlesnakes. I have heard so many myths and theories about Copperheads and their bites, it is hard to know what it actually true. All snakes, especially venomous ones, are too often misunderstood and despised in the modern human mindset. In areas of this country there are rattlesnake roundups, where thousands of snakes are captured for a mass killing that includes gross spectacles of snakes with mouths sewn shut for photo opts or snake skinning contests. In these snake prisons, you can hear thousands of rattles, which is the snakes’ equivalent of a fearful scream. As someone who is desperately trying to unlearn the hateful lessons of my culture, I am in the process of reconciling my relationship with snakes. Rattlesnakes are featured in a new book, Carnivore Minds, by G.A. Bradshaw (1). This important book merges studies of ethology with psychology and neuroscience to paint a more accurate picture of the social and emotional lives of animals labeled as dangerous and cruel. I was touched by the stories of rattlesnake relationships shared in the chapter, and inspired to spend more time appreciating these neighbors of mine. (The awesome photo below shows a mama Copperhead and her babies. I found it online and do not know who to credit.)

Copperhead venom is rarely fatal, though I have heard accounts of small dogs dying from the bites, including one case this past spring in my aunt’s neighborhood. Dogs seem to handle these bites better than humans, but even us two-leggeds typically have a full recovery after a longer period of time. Everyone always says that Copperheads do not want to bite you, but only will as a last resort; like if you step on them or curiously sniff them with your cute little doggie snout. The Copperhead has amazing camouflage and trusts in this protection, only striking as a last-ditch defense. And even when they do bite, they apparently often give a warning bite with a small amount of venom. There are many cases where the bites are completely dry. Thank you Copperheads; we humans don’t deserve your gentleness!

Despite knowing all this, I have still felt nervous about snakebites, dreading what seems to be unavoidable in these parts. But it happened, and we survived, and I thought it might be helpful to share a little write-up about this case study. In the weeks prior to Zygo’s bite, I had a close call with a Copperhead, and felt inspired to put together a snakebite kit for our holler, complete with a written protocol for humans and dogs. That way, if someone were to get bit while I’m away (or if I get bit and freak out), my thoughts would be right there with everything needed.

We opted out of veterinary care because there isn’t a whole lot more they offer besides IV fluids and doggie pain meds (and an expensive bill). They do not use anti-venoms for dogs in our area. With this in mind, I thought Zygo would be more comfortable at home, so we cared for her using:

  • Liquid Benadryl
  • Echinacea tincture 
  • Vitamin C
  • Skullcap tincture
  • Cleavers tincture
  • Raw eggs

Below I will share how it all played out. The dosing amounts were decided because Zygo weighs 35lbs. If you reference this protocol, consider how much the dog weighs and adjust accordingly. Also, use common sense and your own research, of course. I share my explanations for these medicines at the end of the summary. I’m sure there’s a thousand other things that could be helpful.

**Please note, I used only meds/herbs that I know to be safe with canines. Not all OTC meds and herbs that are safe for humans are safe for dogs, so I specifically gathered items that I know have a place in canine care.

EVENING OF THE BITE: Zygo was bit around 5pm and we immediately removed her collar. While we carried her half a mile home, the left side of her snout swelled up. When we got back, I gave her 25mg Benadryl and 3mL Echinacea. The swelling hindered her ability to eat and receive medicine in food, so I administered this via a syringe into the right side of her mouth (she didn’t enjoy it, even with the bubble gum flavor!). I also dropped some Echinacea tincture onto the bite marks, though she did not want me anywhere near her snout. She was clearly in a lot of pain and was breathing rapidly. Her discomfort and breathing seemed to increase when I stared at her with concern, so I tried to act like nothing was wrong, sneaking looks every 5 minutes or so. Poor creature just wanted to be left alone in her anguish. 

The two puncture wounds began oozing dark blood after 2 hour or so. At this time, I gave her 1mL of Echinacea and 1mL of Skullcap. After another two hours, she was willing to lick up raw egg, so I added another 1mL Echinacea, and 500mg Vitamin C (crushed pill). Just before midnight, I gave her another 25mg of Benadryl, 1mL Echinacea, and 1mL Skullcap in another raw egg. The swelling was expanding down her neck. Because her face was swollen, she was not able to rest her head and sleep. Rather she just sat there drowsily bobbing her head, looking exhausted and miserable. Around 2am, I was able to gently coax her head down on the non-swollen side. As soon as her head touched the ground, she was out until 8am. I slept next to her and dreamt of Copperheads.

First evening summary of meds dispensed over 6 hours:

  • 50mg Benadryl
  • 6mL Echinacea
  • 2mL Skullcap
  • 500mg Vitamin C
  • 2 raw eggs

DAY 1: The next morning, the swelling had significantly shifted from her snout to her neck. The snout looked practically normal, but her neck was huge. When we woke up, she was willing to walk with me to a creek about 100ft from our cabin. After she got a solid drink, I started walking back. She just sat there and looked at me. I said, “No worries, I got you!” and carried her back. She rested all morning, rotating between her various dens. I fed her 1 raw egg with fermented oats, and added 25mg Benadryl, 1 mL Echinacea, 1mL Skullcap, 500mg Vitamin C, and sprinkled Turmeric powder on top. By the afternoon, she really perked up and even barked when our neighbors came to visit. I gave her another 1mL of Echinacea in a raw egg. We went for a stroll in the evening, and she happily trailed along with her big saggy neck. Her dinner consisted of salmon with one last dose of 25mg Benadryl, 1mL Echinacea, and 1mL Cleavers. Though her swelling stayed fairly consistent throughout the day, her disposition seemed to be improving very much. The bite marks no longer oozed blood, but they were very sensitive and she did not want me cleaning the dried blood or applying anything. She slept very well that night.

Summary of meds dispensed on the first full day:

  • 50mg Benadryl
  • 3mL Echinacea
  • 1mL Skullcap
  • 1mL Cleavers
  • 500mg Vitamin C
  • 1 tsp Turmeric powder
  • 2 raw eggs

DAY 2: The next morning I found a dog with a much smaller neck! I was very surprised to see the swelling had gone down about 75%. She was able to fully yawn again, and she had much more energy; back to patrolling the neighborhood, herding the chickens, and enthusiastically washing my ears. I fed her more oats and raw egg for breakfast, topped with 1mL Echinacea, 500mg Vitamin C, and Turmeric powder. She received the same for dinner. In the evening, she allowed me to gently clean the bite wounds, which were crusty with blood. Afterwards, I applied some wound powder (made of powdered Yarrow, Usnea, and Goldenseal).

Summary of meds dispensed on the second full day:

  • 2mL Echinacea
  • 500mg Vitamin C
  • 1 tsp Turmeric powder
  • 2 raw eggs
  • wound powder topically

DAY 3: If you met Zygo on this day, you would never know she was recovering from a Copperhead bite. She was about 90% back to normal. I only continued with a dose of 500mg Vitamin C, and didn’t feel the need to administer any herbs. At some point in the day, she re-injured the bite marks from pushing a rock with her nose (a common pastime for Zygo). I dropped some Echinacea tincture onto the wound, and applied some more wound powder.

For the next three days, I gave her a daily dose of 500mg Vitamin C. 

By day 4, she had completely returned to her usual state of being. 

The only obvious lingering effect was the bite marks, which can still be seen if you look closely (a few weeks later). Since the bite, we have noticed an occasional slight movement (tremor?) in her lower jaw, and she has become more affectionate than before (lots of hugging and kissing!). Let’s hope she has learned some appropriate snake boundaries!

It is impossible to know for certain why Zygo’s recovery was so quick and easy-going. I have heard other cases where dogs are down-for-the-count for many days or weeks. There are many factors that could play a part:

  1. Maybe the snake did not inject much venom. Since I did not see the snake, I don’t know how big it was, how long it was attached to Zygo’s snout, etc. I assume it was fairly quick because we were walking along and didn’t even notice anything amiss with Zygo. It would seem very risky for a snake to hang on to a dog’s snout since the dog could then easily retaliate and bite back, so it was likely a quick strike. But her swelling was certainly immediate and significant. 
  2. Maybe Zygo’s young age (15 months) attributed to a strong immune response.
  3. Maybe the herbs & meds helped her body move through the envenomation quickly.
  4. Maybe it was a combination of these factors.

Why did I choose these medicines?

(Again, I used only meds/herbs that I know to be safe with canines. Not all OTC meds and herbs that are safe for humans are safe for dogs, so I specifically gathered items that I know have a place in canine care.)

BENADRYL (Diphenhydramine). I’ve read/heard about many people using Benadryl for doggie snakebites, though I don’t have a full understanding of why to give an anti-histamine. It can certainly be helpful when an overwhelming immune response causes more problems with excessive swelling and inflammation. Though, if we act from an understanding that the body is intelligent/capable in it’s response, I don’t know why we would counter it. BUT since it seems to be a go-to, I used it. It’s also a sedative, and sleep is probably the best medicine of all. I found it helpful to have the liquid form on hand in this case because Zygo was not able to eat with the initial swelling, and it would have been difficult to get a crushed pill down.

ECHINACEA (Echinacea angustifolia/purpurea) is a traditional snakebite herb, with ample ethnobotanical records showing this use in many North American indigenous groups (including the Dakota, Montana, Omaha, Pawnee, Ponca, Winnebago, and Sioux(2)). Echinacea is immune-stimulating and regulates a healthy inflammation response. It is indicated for acute situations. This is typically used in a high dose for a short period of time (>2 weeks). For example, I gave little Zygo 6mL in the first 6 hours; that is equivalent to giving myself about 20 mL. She immediately seemed to improve, so I slowed down my dosage over the next few days.  (Sometime after the bite, I found her contemplating next to the purple cone flowers and snapped this picture. I wonder if she was extending her gratitude.)

I used SKULLCAP (Scutellaria lateriflora) as an herb for pain relief and to calm anxiety. It must have been stressful for Zygo to experience new and uncomfortable sensations, so Skullcap seemed appropriate. 

CLEAVERS (Galium aparine). By the end of the first full day after the bite, her neck seemed to be a full pouch of inflammation soup. I administered Cleavers to support the movement of her lymph. After just one dose, the swelling went down 75% by the next morning. I can’t say for sure it was the Cleavers, but I definitely want to note the correlation.

VITAMIN C is a pretty safe immune support supplement for dogs. It increases white blood cell count and has shown to shorten wound healing time. It is also cheap and easily accessible. I crushed pills and added them to the eggs or other food. (I’ve also used Vitamin C to treat Zygo’s UTIs).

RAW EGGS for doggie snakebites are a folk tradition in the area where I live. My bear hunter neighbors swear the raw eggs “remove the toxins from the body”. I have heard a couple miracle stories centered around raw eggs fed to pets with serious wounds. Perhaps it’s the anti-inflammatory selenium, or the lutein and zeaxanthin, or maybe because it’s a great source of protein. It’s probably worth noting that most folks around here keep chickens, so the eggs they give their dogs are fresh from the coop.

Hope this information can be helpful to you and your furry friends.

And let’s be honest, this post is really just an excuse to share pictures of this sweet pup.


(1) Carnivore Minds, by G.A. Bradshaw

(2) Native American Ethnobotany, by Daniel Moerman

Case Study of a Hand Laceration

My friend Kristen Prosen got a pretty gnarly cut at the base of her thumb while carving a wooden spoon. I was able to check in with her throughout the healing journey, and it has been a pretty successful case of using herbs in wound care. When she came to us at the FL Earthskills first aid station immediately after the knife hit her hand, the cut was quite deep and bleeding. First aiders used a yarrow compress to stop the bleeding, then sent her off to the hospital to get stitches. She used honey on the stitches and removed them after 10 days. She continued to use honey, charcoal, plantain, and helichrysum essential oil. When I saw her a few weeks later at the FL Herbal Conference first aid station, it was doing pretty well, with only slight redness. We began some calendula-infused epsom salt soaks, after which she would scrape off dead tissue. Then air became the wound’s good friend, because it was in a crevice prone to becoming damp and infected. From there, Kristen continued to care for it well with all the above mentioned tools, as she saw fit.  Once there was a healthy layer of new tissue, she began applying salves and frequently massaged the area to break up scar tissue. She now has full mobility and it’s lookin’ great! Here’s some pictures of the wounds progression….

Day 1 (stitches)…………..Day 10 (post-stitches)…………………Day 15

Day 18……………………Day 24……………………..Day 29!

Little First Aid Kit

First aid kits can come in all shapes and sizes. Creating kits for different settings has become an unintentional hobby; I have a home kit, car kit, camping kit, foot care kit, birthing kit, menstruation kit, animal kit, trauma kit, a daily kit, and even an “extras” kit (a kit from which I can restock all other kits!). All of these are constantly transforming and evolving when I come across different containers, different wound dressing material, or if I choose to switch up the herbs I’m working with.  It’s become an obsession really.

What I want to share in this post is a simple first aid kit that is carried daily, and covers the most basic first aid needs. This is a kit that I created for my mom, and, according to her, it has been useful.  It is small (3.5″ x 2.5″ x 1″) and fits nicely in her backpack or purse.

The little first aid kit includes:

  • Band aids
  • Gauze
  • Antiseptic towelettes
  • Wound dressing- a vial of honey-resin mixture.
  • Green band aid salve- all purpose salve in chapstick tube, for skin irritation- bug bites, burns, eczema, dry skin, etc.
  • Electrolyte packets
  • OTC medicine- each in its own bag, labeled with dosage, instructions, contraindications, and expiration date:
    • Ibuprofen- an NSAID (non-steriodal anti-inflammatory) that eases pain from inflammation and lowers fevers. Ibuprofen acts quickly, but doesn’t stay in the body too long, so it has a lower risk of stomach and kidney problems, compared to other meds. Long term use is still not ideal. Do not give to anyone less than 6 months old.
    • Aspirin- another NSAID. Beyond pain relief, this can be a lifesaving anti-clotting medicine in the event of chest pain & heart attacks. Chewing 2-4 baby aspirin upon experiencing chest pain is a standard recommendation by the 911 dispatcher before first responders show up. I have seen aspirin alone resolve serious chest pain very quickly. Long term use can cause gastric distress.  Aspirin is not usually given to children and teens due to the increased risk of Reye’s syndrome.
    • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)- an analgesic (painkiller) and fever reducer. This important to have when NSAIDs cannot be taken, or if pain is not from inflammation. Be careful with Tylenol, as it is one of the most commonly overdosed OTC medications, causing liver damage or even acute liver failure. Don’t take Tylenol with alcohol, and follow the exact dosage instructions.
    • Children’s Tylenol can be important to include in a kit for children, for cases of high fever.
    • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)- antihistamine and sedative.  Severe allergic reactions are becoming more common, and Benadryl can help stave off/slow down/reduce an anaphylactic reaction. Even though I don’t experience allergies, I always carry it on me because (1) I could develop them at any time, and (2) I’d like to provide relief if I am with someone having an allergic reaction. Please note that diphenhydramine is also a sedative, so people will feel sleepy after taking it.  This can effect driving, and the like. I choose Diphenhydramine over other antihistamines because of its relative effectiveness for more severe allergic reactions, beyond just the typical sinus discomfort. In these cases, take Benadryl and call 911.

You may be thinking, “Well, geez Annie, this is not very herby!”  And it’s true.  With this little kit, I’ve chosen to prioritize pharmaceuticals over herbs. The purpose of this kit is to cover the most basic first aid needs, in as small a container possible; so that it is practical and desirable for my mama to take with her wherever she goes.  And since she is rather herbally-inclined, she expands upon this kit with her own plant potions as it makes sense for her personally.

First aid kit photoshoot by Carla Seward 🙂