Herbal First Aid

Note: These articles are not meant as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult with your medical practitioner before using any type of remedy, herbal or otherwise.


Dear Health Genie,

My family is preparing to go on our annual camping trip and I am starting to prepare.  I took out the old first aid kit and am hoping to spice it up with some natural items.  So far, I’ve got all the basics; Band-Aids, alcohol swabs, gauze, etc., but what are some helpful natural remedies I could add in addition to these?

Thank you,

Dear Adrien,

Summertime is here and the camping trips, summer camp, rock climbing, hiking, and watersports are in full swing.  The bug bites and injuries are inevitable.   Here are some helpful natural items to keep in your first aid kit as well as some backups for when you are caught without it.

Homeopathic Arnica

Homeopathic arnica is a great addition to any first aid kit because it can be used in just about any circumstance.  If it is used immediately after impact, it can reduce the severity of injury and shorten recovery time.  Many report less bruising and scarring as well (but do not use arnica topically on open wounds).  Since it is classified as a homeopathic remedy, it is safe for all ages, has no side effects, and can be used in conjunction with any medication. The internal pellets, gels, and creams are sold at most health foods stores and co-ops. 

Bentonite Clay

Bentonite clay gets its name from the location of the largest reservoir of this type of clay in Fort Benton, Wyoming.  Bentonite clay is basically aged volcanic ash that has some unique properties.  It is important to note that in order to “activate” its properties it needs to be hydrated in water. Since the activated clay has a negative charge and a very porous sponge-like surface area, it binds to positively charged toxins like herbicides, some heavy metals, and harmful microorganisms.  For these reasons, it is used in cosmetics, cleaning products, and detoxifying formulas.  If using externally, simply let the clay sit in water and apply as a paste.  You can apply the paste directly onto the face for a soothing, detoxifying mask and add any ingredients like calendula petals, butters, or essential oils.  The paste will help soothe the itch and pain of poison ivy, poison oak, bee stings and insect bites.  It is especially calming for rashes or burns.  It can also be used as a dry powder for toothpaste. Not only will it pull out and bind to toxins in your mouth, but it will also bind to toxins throughout your body. For this reason, it is best not to use bentonite clay within two hours of any medication, as it can neutralize some pharmaceutical compounds.  Additionally, it is not advised to use when constipated, but it is a good remedy for diarrhea.  It is always a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider before using any new products internally.   For internal use, mix 1 tsp of clay per 4 cups of water. 

Tea Tree Oil

Tea tree oil is concentrated oil originally from Australia.  Tea tree oil is known for its antifungal and antibacterial properties and is used to clean floors, countertops, yoga mats, and mold infested furniture. In dilute form, the oil is applied topically for acne, fungal infections, dandruff, athlete’s foot, lice, vaginal infections, and minor cuts.  It is uncommon, but still possible to have an allergic reaction to tea tree oil and should not be used internally unless under the care of a healthcare provider.  It comes in many different forms from spray bottles, ointments, and even in a nail polish container with a brush for applying to toenails.  

Apple Cider Vinegar

Apple cider vinegar is another multi-use item.  When on a camping trip, you can both cook with it and save some reserve for first aid.   For any digestive troubles, acid reflux, or heartburn, dilute 2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar in water or juice and drink regularly throughout the day. 

Wash any area exposed to poison ivy or poison oak with apple cider vinegar to strip the oils and prevent a rash from forming or spreading (since both of these rashes are spread by the oils they produce).  Dilute with 75% water, saturate a wash towel, and spread over any sunburned skin for soothing relief. Apple cider vinegar may help reduce the pain, disinfect the area, and provide nutrients for healing.

When you are caught without a first aid kit…

As we are not always carrying a first aid kit around, it is a good idea to get to know the plants in your area and the first aid techniques used for centuries before the Band-Aid.  Don’t harvest any plant that you not able to identify with 100% certainty and make sure you know how to properly use it.  That being said, here are some common, easily recognized herbs that come in handy when you’re in the woods, on a walk, or stung by a bee in the city:

Plantain: Plantain can be used as a poultice applied topically to poison ivy/oak rashes, insect bites, and bee stings to relieve the itch and pain.  To make a simple poultice, just chew the leaf (the saliva helps activate the compounds in the leaf while also making a spreadable texture) and apply to the affected area.  Plantain is a common “weed” and can be found just about anywhere (even in the cracks of a sidewalk).  A strong tea can also be made from the leaves, allowed to cool, and poured over sunburns for healing relief.

Jewelweed: It works well as a poultice to counteract the sting of nettle or that of any bee or insect bite.  Conveniently, jewelweed is commonly found by stinging nettle and poison oak. The seeds can also be used in moderation to sprinkle on salads for a pleasant nutty flavor.

Yarrow: Yarrow is commonly found in many prairies of Vermont.  It’s most common use is to stop minor bleeding.  Simply make a poultice (as described above) and cover the wound.  Not only does it act as a styptic (a substance that can stop bleeding), but it also has some disinfecting properties.  Its Latin name, Achilles millefolium comes from the legend that Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, used it to heal the wounds of his soldiers in battle.

While these plants are great to know and natural remedies are helpful, they are not a substitute for a conventional first aid kit and medical advice.  If you are spending a substantial period of time in the wilderness, Wilderness First Responder courses can be very helpful and may make all the difference in a dire situation.  Still, taking the steps to know the plants around you and the therapeutic properties of common household items like apple cider vinegar can empower you and make you feel more comfortable in your environment.  I hope these tips are useful, but that you will not need to use them!

Have a great trip!
The Health Genie

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