Not-So-Wise Tales

If you think ringworms crawl or chewing poison ivy prevents the itch, you're obviously a fan of medical fiction.

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Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill have been around more campfires than perhaps any two men in history. Not in a literal, flesh-and-blood sense, of course, but in the form of tall tales that have fascinated young and old alike for many a generation. Mind-stretching, imaginary stuff with no harm done.

Tale-spinning isn’t reserved solely for blue oxen or cowboys who ride tornadoes, though. There are some camp yarns that can harm-medical myths and misconceptions spun from the spool of ignorance and passed down, frayed ends and all, as backwoods gospel. It’s time to set the record straight.

The stinging truth: How many times have you heard that the best way to remove a bee stinger and the attached venom sac is to scrape the sting site, but don’t squeeze and pull? Too many times, I bet.

One thing is certain: You need to remove the stinger as soon as possible since it continues to pump venom into your body even after the bee has buzzed away. Left in too long, the stinger can also cause infection. As for the best method of removal, tests have shown that scraping with a stiff object like a fingernail or credit card may work in some cases, but grabbing the stinger with your fingers works just as well and won’t make the injury worse.

Don’t give the sun any lip: It surprises me how often I hear this one: Gradually exposing your lips to longer and longer periods of sun will make them tougher and less likely to burn. It’s usually uttered by people who forgot to bring lip balm.

The truth of the matter is that when outdoors, you must pucker up and smear on sunscreen. That’s because lips are not true skin. They’re mucous membranes and lack melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color and provides a brief degree of natural sunscreening. So actually, your lips will burn easier than your skin. There’s also the matter of lip cancer, so be safe and wear a protective coating whenever you’re outside.

Itching to take vitamins: Some vitamin manufacturer probably started telling folks that taking large doses of vitamin B1 will protect you from mosquitoes. And there’s no harm in trying, but get ready to scratch. Vitamin B1 (thiamin) is essential for your body to metabolize carbohydrates and fats properly, and you need only 1?2 milligram per 1,000 calories of food for good nutrition. As for repelling mosquitoes, tests were conducted on volunteers who took a whopping 200 milligrams of B1 three times per day and then were exposed to hungry ‘skeeters. They got just as many bites as volunteers who didn’t take supplemental vitamin B1.

Pass the salt: Taking salt tablets during physical exertion will help prevent and treat heat-related problems like heat exhaustion.

How can a gastric irritant help you? That’s what salt tablets are and that’s why they’re not recommended for human consumption, especially when you’re hot and thirsty. What you need to prevent and to treat heat-related problems, of course, is water. Adding salt to water, by the way, won’t increase the rate your body will absorb the fluid, although cold water is absorbed faster than warm. Don’t discount the value of salt completely, however. A pinch (too little to taste) added to a liter of water may help prevent and treat heat cramps. The old maxim still holds: Clear and copious urine indicates a well-hydrated hiker, and one less prone to heat problems.

DEET way and dat: DEET-less bug repellents don’t offer much protection.

That one has a legion of true believers. DEET deserves its reputation as the most effective insect repellent. No argument there. But natural citronella-based repellents in concentrations of 10 percent have been shown to effectively repel insects for up to 2 hours-as long as 10 percent DEET products. More and more people, especially those with young children, are concerned about the potentially harmful side effects of DEET, so if you’re one of them, try one of the natural products. Although other herbal products have repelling qualities attributed to them, citronella is thus far the most effective herbal product for repelling mosquitoes approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ring around the worm: Did your mother ever tell you that walking barefoot in summer increases the risk of a ringworm burrowing into your skin? Mine did.

You can& contract certain skin conditions while going shoeless. For instance, the fungus that causes athlete’s foot can be picked up from soil, typically in warm, humid climates, although more often you get it in public shower stalls.

As for “ringworm,” that’s the popular term for several fungal infections caused by dermatophytes (“skin plants”). The name ringworm comes from the fact that the resulting inflammation is wavy, wormlike, and sometimes circular. “Ringworm” of the foot is athlete’s foot; on the groin it’s referred to as jock itch; it can also show up on the scalp, the bearded area in men, and basically anywhere there’s skin. Most cases are passed human-to-human or furry-animal-to-human. Dermatophytes like it warm, wet, and dark and are encouraged by poor skin hygiene, skin chafed by tight clothing, and skin puffy from long exposure to moisture. Over-the-counter antifungal medications usually whip fungal infections into submission.

There’s the rub: Here’s one that goes waaaaay back: Eating small pieces of poison ivy leaves will give you immunity to the plant and the nasty rash it causes.

About 400 years ago Captain John Smith noted that he’d seen Indians chewing poison ivy leaves as protection against the rash. Even if that were true, the agony of such a practice would be worse than the typical reaction. Today’s guideline is simple: Avoid the plant. Leaves of three, let it be.

There are several other poison ivy-related myths that need debunking: 1) “Scratching open, watery blisters will spread the rash.” Contact with urushiol, the oily sap of the plant, is the only thing that will cause a skin reaction. To prevent a reaction, immediately wash the area in question with cold water and soap. 2) “Poison ivy isn’t poisonous in the winter.” Urushiol is present throughout the plant, including the roots, and remains active all year. 3) “The super-sensitive need only stand downwind of the plant to suffer its itchy wrath.” Urushiol cannot be carried on the wind but can be transported on particles in smoke if the plant is burned. 4) “Urushiol flows inside the plant, so the leaves or stem must be broken for it to leak out and get on you.” All you have to do is brush against the leaves to come in contact with urushiol and to have a reaction.

Leave me aloe: Aloe vera has no medicinal qualities. True or false.

As far back as 1935, topical applications of aloe vera taken directly from the plant’s leaves were being tested and found to enhance healing. In modern-day research, abrasions treated with ointment containing as little as 5 percent aloe vera healed two to three times faster than those that weren’t treated with anything. Products with concentrations greater than 90 percent can rub out some bacteria, and the moisturizing effect of aloe vera helps burned skin feel better and heal. Aloe is a relatively hardy plant that grows easily in homes. Its leaves can be broken off, stored in a plastic bag and carried in your first-aid kit. Or you can opt for an over-the-counter product; look for one with an aloe concentration of at least 90 percent.

Fit to be fried: To reduce your chances of heat stroke, stay in top physical condition.

At first, this one sounds like it has merit, right? But in reality, those in top condition are actually more likely to suffer heat stroke. Sounds odd, I know, but think about it. Your run-of-the-mill hiker gets tired, starts to feel bad, stops and rests. Highly fit hikers, on the other hand, have a tendency to push harder and go past the point where their bodies can adequately shed the heat being generated. The result is usually an exertional heat stroke. Symptoms include red, hot, wet skin (instead of dry skin) and irrational behavior. Unless rapid cooling is undertaken, as many as eight out of 10 heat stroke patients die. Regardless of your fitness level, prevent heat-related problems by staying well hydrated and by maintaining a comfortable pace with regular rest breaks.

Looks clean to me: Minor cuts and scratches can be safely cleaned in any natural water source.

Don’t be so sure about that. Although many backcountry streams and rivers-especially those at higher elevations-contain little that can infect a wound, some seemingly clean water sources are polluted and can lead to bacterial infections. Warm, still, algae-laden waters are especially ripe with dangerous organisms. Flowing waters, while safer, can harbor a variety of human and/or animal-borne pathogens that would love to get under your skin. It’s better to clean all wounds with water that has been treated with iodine or filtered.

In the tick of time: Ticks are the objects of more than a fair share of misinformation. For instance: Once you find one embedded in your skin, you’re already the recipient of its nasty pathogens.

Estimates on how long a tick must be attached to give you enough germs to cause sickness vary with the disease and species of tick. To transmit Lyme disease, a tick must stay in place and feed for 36 to 48 hours. Ticks that carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever take 6 to 10 hours to pass along germs. If you check yourself immediately after tromping through brush and properly remove all the little buggers, chances are you’ll avoid illness. (See Body Language, May 1997.) Meanwhile, two U.S. drug companies have developed Lyme vaccines. The products will be reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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