Backwoods Medic: Fighting Infection Without Drugs

One of the big worries for common sense preppers who hope to get through difficult times ahead is medical care.  Or, specifically, the lack of it.  But this is not the nightmare that most folks perceive it to be, and many who have made their living in remote areas have learned what historians know about life on wooden ships and military camps of distant times: they generally did pretty well without drugs.  Sure, there were grisly deaths to disease and infection.  But there’s a reason why pirate lore is full of men without eyes and hands and legs.  They lived because the ship’s surgeon, the most popular guy on board, knew how to deal with infection.

Generally, any idiot who isn’t a hopeless momma’s boy can sew up torn pants and suture a wound.  But can he keep it from getting hopelessly infected in the outdoors?  That’s what I want to focus on with this post, and add a personal success story from a few days ago that surprised the hell out of me.

Several topical infection fighters are well known: ethanol, hydrogen peroxide, merthiolate, various anti-bacterial ointments, etc., etc.  Some of these may even be in your kit or somewhere in camp.  But what happens when the infection goes deep, and you have no antibiotics?  Are you dead meat?  Hardly.  Just as American indians and settlers used hot irons to immediately staunch bleeding, the heat of the irons also killed the bacteria and often kept the wounds from ever getting infected.  That same heat can be used to kill deep infections, and it often was.  Pioneer accounts are full of the use of hot compresses to “relieve” internal conditions, and I suspect it helped a lot to kill off bacteria that are not tolerant of temps above 100 degrees.

Seem obvious?  No doubt, but the medical community discourages such use of heat, so many people are hesitant to use it because they’ve been told it can cause more harm than good due to excessive swelling.  Drugs are usually the primary infection-fighting resource.  Does heat cause swelling?  Of course, but it also dramatically increases blood flow to the area infected, which, if the victim is healthy otherwise, is usually enough to clear up the infection, especially if it’s alternated with cooling to allow for the ebb and flow of congestion in the area.

My personal story is about a recent serious subcutaneous infection that is common where I live, in the Rocky Mountains.  I have a slightly damaged left elbow bursa that picks up these deep infections every now and then.  I don’t know why; maybe because I’ve spent a lot of time crawling around in the dirt under houses and decks doing dirty jobs.  The first two times this happened to me, my elbow swelled up to the size of a football, it was resistant to antibiotics, and I ended up in the hospital in real danger of losing the arm.  During one in-patient stay, I was pretty sure I was going to die three different times, either because of the weird shit they put in my IV to kill the infection that I had reactions to, or because of the other weird shit they gave me to try to reduce my reaction.  It might not surprise you that when I got a third infection a few weeks ago, I was motivated to stay out of the hospital.

The first thing I did was apply a lot of heat to the site of the infection, using heating pads.  Maybe 20 minutes on and a few hours off.  A couple of days of that, and the rapidly expanding, golf-ball-sized infection shrunk back to nothing.  Pain gone.  End of story.  Cost?  Almost nothing.  Did I stop working on a landscaping project that had me digging in between heat applications?  No way.  I figured the extra blood circulation to the arm was a good thing.  If this had happened in the backcountry, direct exposure of the elbow to the radiant heat of a fire would have done the trick, too.  I’m not saying that heat will kill all infections, or that it should even be tried with body core infections, but for extremities, it can be a powerful means of keeping the bugs in their place.

UPDATE for Severe, Gangrenous Infections:  Note that the above discussion was meant to apply to the beginnings of dangerous infections, where there is not, as yet, any dead tissue.  In other words, no gangrene or necrosis.  Unfortunately, that kind of advanced tissue death happens in the field, and when it does, it has to be faced.  Direct excision of the dead tissue is probably preferable, but as Knight4GFC points out: I’ve heard that back in the day, in order to keep infection at bay in deep and open wounds, they applied maggots. The maggots would eat up dead tissue and keep out infection. they would eventually work their way out of the wound. I know that is still practiced here and there.

Solaratov also suggests the following:  In a survival (SERE) situation, first, wash the wound with urine (pee on it) regularly. If infection develops, open the wound and let a couple of flies land and lay eggs. Then cover it back up. Check regularly to see if maggots have hatched. When they do, scrape out all but about six or so. Then cover the wound and maggots back up. Check it regularly; and take out the remaining maggots when you see a steady flow of fresh red blood. That means that the maggots have eaten all of the available rotten and/or dead flesh and the surface infection (puss, etc.) Keep washing the wound out with urine regularly.

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About GruntOfMonteCristo

Fearless and Devout Catholic Christian First, Loving Husband and Father Second, Pissed-Off Patriot Third, Rocket Engineer Dork Last.
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13 Responses to Backwoods Medic: Fighting Infection Without Drugs

  1. barnslayer says:

    Hydrogen peroxide is dirt cheap and available OTC. It has been shown to be nearly equal to the expensive Rx solutions like Peridex (chlorohexidine glucoconate). Its foaming action cleanses the area better as well. Another is Clorox. It is used routinely in root canal therapy to kill all the wee beasties. Considering the poor circulation inside a tooth, it has a tough job. We dilute it to 1/10th concentration with water.

    • Did not know that, Barn. Clorox? I guess that makes sense. We used to use a lot of chlorine-based sterilizers in the backcountry, but never on people! Good to know. Thanks! By the way, if you disagree with anything in this post, please advise and I will change and give you credit. You’re the brainiac on this subject for sure. Oh, one reason I worry about Peroxide in the backcountry is that I got the idea that it broke down pretty fast under heat and vibration, like being packed around. Is that true?

      • barnslayer says:

        I don’t know about vibration but heat and light aren’t good for it. Regarding the Clorox, it’s got to be diluted and it very well may cause scarring. If it’s too concentrated it will cause tissue damage. Me the brainiac?… we are up sh*t’s creek!

  2. Guys, some of you may be uneasy with my language in this post. Obviously, I was not trying particularly hard to keep it absolutely free of profanity, and that could be an issue we need to work out at some point. I understand that there may eventually be kiddos reading this stuff. When I wrote this, I guess I lapsed into camp-talk, somewhat. It was easy, since we have a kind-of-a “boy’s-only treehouse” thing going on at this point. I hope that doesn’t continue, because I hope we get some gals, too, at some point. Just so you all know, I’m not averse to cleaning it up, or talking that out later. We certainly need to keep it respectable, and I’m particular adamant about not being overtly blasphemous, this being a Judeo-Christian-oriented site, after all! 🙂

  3. Knight4GFC says:

    I’ve heard that back in the day, in order to keep infection at bay in deep and open wounds, they applied maggots. The maggots would eat up dead tissue and keep out infection. they would eventually work their way out of the wound. I know that is still practiced here and there.

    • Knight and Sol, I kinda think this deserves an update to the post, because I was just writing about non-gangrenous infections. But gangrene is a big deal, too, and what you’ve written could be a big help. Feel free to add to the post if you like, as an “Update by Knight4GFC/Solaratov,” or I’ll take a crack at it later. Good stuff!

      From over on the Open Thread, GFC says…
      Great post Grunt and dittos on the add ons. I always carry a few things in the back country. Horse hair, curved stitching needle, iodine, alcohol (rubbing), alcohol flask (for the sticher lol) water, cold pak, hot pak and a bunch of medical bandages and wraps. I have used the needle more than once on a couple of 3-4the day excursions in the backwoods. That is why I never leave home without them. 🙂

  4. solaratov says:

    Try this……………
    http://www.healingnaturallybybee.com/articles/anti6.php

    Re: maggots………………
    In a survival (SERE) situation, first, wash the wound with urine (pee on it) regularly. If infection develops, open the wound and let a couple of flies land and lay eggs. Then cover it back up. Check regularly to see if maggots have hatched. When they do, scrape out all but about six or so. Then cover the wound and maggots back up. Check it regularly; and take out the remaining maggots when you see a steady flow of fresh red blood. That means that the maggots have eaten all of the available rotten and/or dead flesh and the surface infection (puss, etc.) Keep washing the wound out with urine regularly.

  5. Knight4GFC says:

    Below is a link to a video that may be disturbing to most people. But for the sake of science, I leave this link. It is about the use of maggots in wounds in todays medical world. So even in the medical world, this method of dead, infected tissue debridement, by applying maggots is still used. now the vid is in a pristine medical environment unlike the backwoods. Keep in mind though that this method has been used in the backwoods since as far as we can remember. Very effective treatment!
    http://tinyurl.com/ckcqunj

  6. texan59 says:

    Anyone heard about honey? I’ve been seeing stories lately about applying gobs of it to open wounds. Here’s an article from NIH.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2831240/

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