Natural selection

Summer is nigh, and it's a most unforgiving season for bodily ailments. Bites and stings; cuts and bruises; rashes, burns, and sprains; fungi, odors, itches. In short, all kinds of discomfort and perhaps some of those dreaded doctor visits that make us all feel pretty pathetic. There's nothing like going to a physician with stinging feet, a smarting butt, or a swollen eye, only to be told to keep yourself clean and not to scratch.

Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to treat these pesky conditions just by looking in your medicine cabinet or kitchen cupboard. So forget the stuffy waiting room with screaming children and wheezing grandmas, the indignity of being puffy, oozy, and sore in public, and the balance of an astronomical doctor's bill your insurance company won't pay. Following is a menu of home remedies to save you time, dignity, and money as you wade through this year's warm-weather afflictions. Some, admittedly, are old wives' tales, but they have a decent track record and at the very least are mildly amusing.

Save for indigestion and other gastric distress -- typically the result of too much malt beverage and grilled meat--most summertime maladies occur out of doors. Soaring attendance at lakes, woods, and the like brings more and more people into intimate contact with ticks, chiggers, and other havoc-wreaking bugs, notes Bill Cihlar, park manager at Rocky Gap State Park in Western Maryland. And the 16 weeks of summer are when people are most likely to overexert themselves, particularly at sports, says Rob Clark, nutrition team leader at the Mount Washington Fresh Fields, an upscale natural-food store.

But when it comes to treating the consequences of such summertime woes and antics, don't expect any sympathy from extreme-sports types who look with disdain upon the moaning mountain biker with poison ivy in his pants or the clueless hiker with a chigger in her ear. "Nearly all of these, of course, are preventable," Cihlar says. "We require visitors to have the necessary skills and knowledge to have a safe visit. We don't want people to come here and run willy-nilly through the forest and yell for a ranger."

That said, willy-nillyness happens. Here's what to do when it does.

Bug bites and bee stings: Per Maryland's park naturalists, these are the most common summer mishaps -- especially late in the season, once insect broods have multiplied and trash receptacles are at their most ripe. If you're allergic to bees, read no further and run like hell to the doctor the second you get stung. For the rest of us, there is much that can be done to minimize itching, pain, and swelling.

Like, say, tenderizing. Sprinkling meat tenderizer on a bee-sting welt is a popular folk remedy. "It does to some degree reduce the sting of the sting," says Mary Ellen Dore, park naturalist for the Southern Maryland Recreational Complex, a network of state parks.

But what if you're a vegetarian? If your larder lacks meat tenderizer, there's always garlic oil, which, when applied, soothes the wound. (You can also try safflower oil, vinegar, or honey.) A baking-soda-and-water paste, left to dry on the sting, also works wonders, and a cornstarch/lemon juice mix can help prevent persistent pain and itch. According to, a Web-based company that peddles health advice and natural products out of a big red barn in Concord, Mass., moistening the skin ASAP after the bite and rubbing aspirin on it helps control swelling.

For those with a stocked medicine cabinet or a drug store within spitting distance, there's always aloe vera gel, and according to superstition, hanging dried tomato leaves in the window may keep winged pests away. A steady diet of garlic will also help ward them off, Fresh Fields' Clark says. So will bathing in a tub of diluted bleach before venturing outdoors.

Ticks are another summertime hazard of the flesh-eating kind, and don't be fooled: The pinhead-sized ones found on deer aren't the only menace, Dore says. Lyme disease can also be caused by the big, bloated ticks found on dogs. But much as the belief that only deer ticks are dangerous is dated, so are popular methods of tick removal. Don't apply Vaseline, gasoline, or a recently extinguished match, thinking it will kill the tick or make it back out, Patapsco Valley State Park naturalist Anne Kernan says. Use fingertips or tweezers to get under the vermin's head and gently pull, then cleanse with soap and water. And watch those folds and creases where ticks like to nestle -- underarms, between toes, and in all hairy areas.

Poison ivy and oak: Contact with this stuff creates summer's most miserable condition. "If it's green, just assume it's poison ivy. That saves a lot of anxiety," Rocky Gap's Cihlar says. Should you not be so vigilant and stray off-trail (best to wait for an open, grassy patch or hold your bladder) or rub up against a dog that's been running through the bushes, Cihlar recommends looking fast for jewelweed, a Native American remedy that every park naturalist we know says works. The jewelweed plant grows in moist areas throughout Maryland (check edges of ditches and shady areas); it has small orange-and-yellow blossoms and a fleshy, sappy stem that, when broken off and rubbed on a rash, temporarily soothes like aloe vera. Baking-soda paste also lessens itching and blistering, and Fresh Fields' Clark says washing with pine-tar soap can help keep this nastiest of rashes from spreading. As with all rashes, avoid sun and hot water.

Allergies: Much like snow in the Midwest, pollen in these parts hangs around forever. Those with sensitive sinuses face major discomfort for all six warm months of the year. The good news is, it's easy to keep your sinuses happy without pharmaceutical intervention.

Dank, salty beach air clears things out. Huffing saltwater from the palm of your hand does the same trick, without the hoards of marauding tourists to tangle with. Just make sure it's noniodized or sea salt, Clark says, because iodine can irritate mucus membranes. A more effective "nasal irrigant" requires a small equipment purchase, but Clark swears it's the best investment an allergy sufferer can make. The magic item is a "neti pot," a ceramic teapot-looking thing -- a dead ringer for Aladdin's lamp, Clark notes. Fill it with saltwater and pour into one nostril, letting it swish around your sinuses and come out the other side.

"It physically removes years and years of debris--pollen dust, mold, environmental toxins," Clark says. "It's like a colonic for your nose. My nose never felt better. I felt like I'd never breathed before."

Should you have an aversion to sticking things up your nose, being more discerning about what you eat can also ease allergic reactions. Many allergy experts recommend deep-sixing dairy from your diet, and naturalists say eating nettles or parsley does away with runny noses, sneezing, and itchy eyes.

Wounds: Skinned shins and cracked kneecaps are common among summertime hikers, as are cuts and burns among ax-wielding, weenie-roasting campers. And among recreational softball leaguers, there is no end to the strawberries, welts, and bruises. Should you become the unfortunate bearer of such abrasions, Cihlar warns, don't use just rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide for a quick fix. "Alcohol -- the reason it stings is that it's damaging nerves and whatnot. It's a very caustic chemical to the human body," he says. And peroxide, even though it froths and fizzes, doesn't do nearly as good a job of an anti-bacterial soap. "The rinsing action of soapy water does a lot more than people think," Cihlar says. "It washes away bacteria."

After the wound has begun to heal, apply aloe-vera gel, vitamin E oil, or cod- liver oil. Wrap it with a cloth and apply direct pressure to stop the bleeding. To knit a small wound, some suggest sprinkling cayenne pepper on it, which will stimulate the wound to heal more quickly.

Sprains, strains, and soreness For the overzealous (read: out-of-shape) base runner or Frisbee hurler, a pulled quad or groin needn't be all that awful. Pour two pounds of Epsom salts into a tub of hot water and soak for 12 minutes, says Kari Heath, another Fresh Fields nutritionist, but not without drinking two to three glasses of water before and after to avoid dehydration. Cihlar, meanwhile, relies on an old park-ranger maxim for treating such wounds: RICE--rest, ice, compression, and elevation.

Burned skin and bleached hair: The best way to avoid sunburn is the same as it ever was -- stay out of the sun. Second best is no home-brewed fix; slather on the sunblock, SPF 15 or higher. But if you don't do either and find yourself returning to the beach house bright red, something from the kitchen cabinet can probably easy the pain. Apply chilled apple-cider vinegar to soothe the skin, or mix a cup of white vinegar into a tub of cool water and soak in it. Milk protein also comforts, and suggests dipping a cloth in one cup of skim milk, four cups water, and some ice and applying the wet compress to the skin for 15 to 20 minutes every two hours. Ditto with oatmeal water, made by wrapping dry oatmeal in a permeable cloth and running water through it.

For a sunburned face, make a paste of milk and whole-wheat flour, apply, leave on until dry, and wash off with warm water. Rubbing on olive oil will also replenish the skin.

Hair gets baked in summer too, not to mention coated in chlorine, and the same things that heal burned skin can help fried hair. A raw-egg-white or mayonnaise wash is good for restoration, and apple-cider vinegar rids hair of chemical buildup.

Stuff between your toes: "Your body's overrun with fungus." Ah, such a pleasant thought. But Rob Clark's words become painfully true when warm, sweaty-foot weather hits, creating the right conditions for yeast to grow. A common form of such fungal overgrowth is athlete's foot, which, thankfully, is invisible to others and fairly easily nixed. For starters, throw out all plastic or vinyl shoes -- no matter how cute -- and wear only cotton socks. Then set about fungus-killing and comfort-seeking. Repeatedly soak feet in a saline solution (two teaspoons salt per pint of warm water) for five to 10 minutes at a time, advises; this creates an unwelcome environment for fungal growth, reduces sweating, and softens skin so over-the-counter anti-fungal creams can penetrate deeper. Baking-soda paste between the toes also dries things out and eases discomfort, as does rubbing the affected area with white vinegar or packing brewer's yeast and honey between the toes twice daily. Finally, dust feet with cornstarch before donning socks or shoes.

Bodily odors: It's no fun to talk about, but the bottom line is that we all occasionally smell. And we do so most in the summer. To make it through the hot season as inoffensively as possible, wash with soap and wash often. The folks at recommend a strong-smelling cleaner such as pine soap (available in most hunting-supply stores) to mask body odors; if you don't like smelling like a pine tree, glycerin soap works as well. There's also that old folk remedy for dogs who tangle with skunks: Pour a couple of cups of tomato juice in bath water and soak for 15 minutes. And brushing clean armpits with baking soda does what deodorants often can't.

Then there's the old cleansing of the colon. Toxins in the colon can spread odors around the body (bad breath can be a direct result of stuff in the large intestine), so many naturalists suggest killing those odors by, um, flushing them. Fresh Fields' Heath recommends a coffee enema. Using organic coffee and purified water, brew up a big pot and let it cool, then let your basic drug-store-bought enema applicator do its thing. Heath isn't exactly sure what about the coffee works so well, but she reckons it must have something to do with the correlation between coffee and the oh-so-popular morning constitutional. And we always thought java caused bad breath.

Molly Rath writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this feature first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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