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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Getting cactus spines out of your skin

Planning a trip to the Desert Southwest to get away from that cold, Northern nastiness? As we write this, it's shirtsleeve weather in Quartzsite. Yes, do bring a sweater or light jacket, it does get cold at night. But the Southwest has another surprise for the unwary desert wanderer – those cacti really do have thorns, and if you're stuck, you need to be prepared to get the little nasties out of your skin. Here's what you need to know.

First rule: If it's a plant that lives on the desert, it probably has thorns. It's just the nature of the matter. Best way to avoid getting stuck: Look, take pictures, admire – but do it from a distance. There are some varieties of cactus that you don't want anywhere near. Popularly called "jumping cactus," these cute little Cholla look a lot like fuzzy teddy bears, but their cuteness vanishes the minute you get hit with their thorns. No, they don't really jump, but just lightly brushing up against one will cause miles of misery. So when we say, "admire from a distance," make it several inches away – preferably feet.

Two types of cactus darts, and coping with them

Saguaro hopesrphotos/pixabay
There are basically two types of cactus "artillery." The majority of cacti are armed with hard spines. If you back into one, you'll likely jump quite a distance, and in many cases, the offended cactus will keep its spine, leaving you with a smarting hole. In some cases you'll come away with the spike stuck in you. For treatment, think wood splinter. Keep a pair of tweezers in your day pack, and gently work the thing loose. You may be able to use your pocket tool knife to scrape away, or gently cut away layers of skin above the annoying object.

Once you get the spine removed, do tend to the wound quickly. Ideally, soap and water cleaning is all that's required, but not always easily at hand in the field. A bit more painful, but useful nonetheless, hand sanitizer. Don't ignore the wound, it can infect.

What if you can't get the thing out? It's best to visit a doctor or other medical professional. They may advise just letting the thing come out on its own, or use their own methods to convince the recalcitrant thing to depart.

Cholla almost invites a touch
The other type of cactus armament isn't hard, nor seemingly needle-like. These are called Glochids, and they are the real bullies of the cactus defensive system. These spines are almost like fine hair, and often tend to keep close to the plant surface, and may be tufted. And the real problem? They're most often barbed, meaning once you get stuck, they like to stay stuck in you. If you get stuck with one glochid, you're likely stuck with a whole lot more at the same time.

Prickly Pear (Prowitt/Pixabay)
Funny thing is, you might not initially notice that you've been brushed by these characters, but with a little time, you'll know. These can cause contact dermatitis – skin inflammation and itching – that can hang on in misery for months. This is why the admonition – stay way back! If you're visiting the Arizona desert, the two biggest purveyors of glochids are Cholla (Teddy Bear) cactus, and Prickly Pear. The former look fuzzy, and almost inviting to "pet," and the latter look rather harmless. Neither one of them are harmless.

If you come away from a close encounter of the glochid kind, here's what advice we can offer. First, RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO SUCK YOUR SORE FINGER! No kidding! These nasty little things will find it an open invitation to jump from your finger to your tongue with seriously disastrous results to speech, food enjoyment, and love life. Yell and scream if you will, but keep that infested skin away from your mouth.

Getting these rascals out of your hide is a two-part approach. First, to get about three-quarters of them out means painstakingly using tweezers to pull the barbs out. You may need the help of a magnifying class. And no, from personal experience, the pliers on your pocket tool are just not fine enough for this process. Get as many of these spines out as you can, and when you get back to base camp, get out the Elmer's glue. Yep, put a light coating of white glue over the affected area, and while still wet, add a layer of medical gauze. Let the whole mess dry for about a half hour, and peel away the gauze. Duct tape only pulls about half the spines out that the glue and gauze method. According to one scientific researcher, first using tweezers, then the glue patch, gets about 95 percent of the spines out.

Once you've gotten what glochids you can out of your hide, if you suffer from dermatitis, applying over the counter corticosteroids is about the only way to cope until the matter resolves itself. If you're really troubled, visit with your doctor.

2 comments:

  1. Due to reverse barbs on cholla spines, use a pliers. Gently rotate when pulling out. It folds the reverse barbs on the spine versus them digging in deeper.

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  2. If out on a hike and you get stuck I heard that taking a comb and putting the comb up against and through the spines and then combing "out". Hope I never have to find out if it works.

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