First aid for summer's mishaps

HealthMayo ClinicFirst Aid

Shaving cream for jellyfish stings? Vinegar for sunburn? Meat tenderizer for just about anything that bothers your skin? Popular wisdom holds that vinegar and baking soda — among a slew of folk remedies — work for just about all that ails you.

Thinking outside the medicine cabinet, the use of home remedies (or repurposed products) can often be as effective as any commercial salve for mild discomfort caused by everyday accidents or encounters with critters. (The emphasis here is on mild. Anyone who is having a severe allergic reaction — difficulty breathing, excessive swelling, nausea, dizziness — should not wait to seek immediate medical help.)

Late summer owns the distinction of being the time of year when people suffer the most stings from insects and plants. That's because the months when people tend to spend more time outdoors coincides with whenbees and wasps are at their most active. It also means exposure to such natural irritants as poison ivy. In this region, it's also when the temperature of local waters peaks and brings with it swarms of jellyfish.

The hazards are plentiful but that's no reason to stay inside. But you might want to take note of these remedies for some of the accidents and ailments common at this time of year. Practicality is also a consideration. After all, who goes to the beach with a jug of vinegar? Or has immediate access to sliced onions?

Perhaps the best remedy comes from understanding the injury — then it's both easier to avoid and, if necessary, to treat. And really, these are remedies, or salves, not cures.

Jellyfish

The most common local species, phylum cnidaria, go by the name of sea nettles. The trailing tentacles can prick a victim and release nematocysts, venom used to immobilize prey.

For instant relief, people recommend immersing the area in wet sand or sea water. Either should provide a temporary — very temporary — reprieve. (Perhaps this is another old wives' tale, but usually the antidote to nature's wounds can be found nearby.) Essentially both provide a soothing effect by helping to cool the affected area and rid it of more irritants.

But the discomfort is likely to stick around and the "sting" may even spread after initial contact as venom continues to be released.

To prevent this, it's important to remove remaining nematocysts by applying a paste to draw them out and then letting the coating dry before scraping it off. Some local EMS groups have jellyfish kits with nothing more sophisticated than vinegar and baking soda to make a paste. Meat tenderizer works in much the same way as vinegar, its enzyme papain neutralizing the venom and reducing inflammation. The powdered version can be mixed with sea water to make a paste.

However, the Mayo Clinic, which recommends the use of vinegar for most jellyfish stings, recommends using shaving cream or a paste of seawater and baking soda or talcum powder instead for sea nettle stings. Once dry, it can be scraped off using plastic, such as a credit card — or fingernails.

Do not, all agree: rub, rinse with fresh water, use rubbing alcohol, bleach or ammonia.

Wasps andbees

Their stings are different and therefore, while the enzymes from a freshly sliced onion or its juice might work to soothe a wasp's sting, other methods are necessary to remove a honey bee's stinger. As with jellyfish, the latter should be scraped off. Wipe gauze over the area or use a fingernail.

Whenbees sting they release a chemical that attracts other bees, so it's important to head out of the immediate area or out of the open into shade. Treat with an antiseptic afterwards to prevent infection.

Do not: squeeze a stinger or use tweezers, or scratch.

Poison ivy

The plant and its fellow offenders, poison oak and sumac, create a "wet rash" from oil from the plants that's absorbed into the skin. Contrary to popular belief, the rash of fluid-filled blisters is not contagious and does not spread after first contact. Any increase in the rash area is either attributable to a delayed reaction or re-infection — the offending oil, uroshiol, an allergen, remains active on surfaces for an extended time. Washing clothes and other surfaces thoroughly with soap and water limits re-exposure.

Liquid white shoe polish, recommended by some to calm the itching, probably won't do any damage; it contains pipe clay which has the same drying, soothing effect as calamine lotion. Pastes of baking soda and oatmeal baths are recommended for their anti-inflammatory properties. If the rash becomes infected — from scratching — then antibiotics are prescribed.

Do not: blot the areas with bleach, or scratch.

Sunburn

Once burned, the long-term damage to the skin is already done. But there's some relief for the burning, itching and scaling that follows a second-degree burn — that's when the skin gets red and peels. Most of the home recommendations involve products that offer a cooling sensation, such as aloe vera lotion, a cool shower, a vinegar-soaked wet towel, or petroleum jelly. There's no "cure," but they all offer a feeling of relief, a sensation of cool. For more severe second-degree burns, when the skin blisters, medical attention is essential, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists.

Do not: pop the blisters.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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