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WARNING: This article is meant to be a general overview and not a detailed guide on medical alternatives to be used in dire situations. Seek medical attention from a licensed physician before attempting any of these methods.
A couple decades ago, I was backpacking in Central America and met a grad student who was studying the medicinal plants of the Mayan people. As a direct descendant of the ancient civilization, he wanted to know more about plants that were used back then and that are still available today. We had a great discussion, and he was kind enough to show me some medicinal plants. I asked him what he does when he gets sick and needs medicine; he replied that he goes to the doctor and gets a prescription. Why? Because, that’s the best medicine available today and is most efficient at treating illness. He added that the Mayans used plants because that was the best medicine they had available at the time.
That statement made quite the impression on me as a physician. I don’t shun those using medicinal plants, but I always share this story when they direct the conversation that way. But what if you find yourself in a situation where access to modern medicine is limited, or non-existent?
Prior to 1850, infections were the most common cause of death. In the latter part of the 19th century, people like Lister, Koch, and Pasteur made advances that significantly lowered mortality due to infections. So, assuming you’re up to date on your vaccinations and that smallpox doesn’t make a comeback, the three biggest threats to surviving without modern antibiotics are pneumonia, infectious diarrhea, and skin infections. Fortunately, there are plants, poultices, and pet meds that serve as alternatives to treating infection.
It’s important to know what plants are available in your area or bug-out location. What’s present in the Midwestern United States may not be present in the Southwest. It’s also important to identify plants correctly, as there are plants that mimic others and may not be helpful or could even be harmful (see Eat This, Not That in Issue 25 of RECOIL OFFGRID). Many of the plants used for medicinal purposes have both antimicrobial properties as well as anti-inflammatory properties. To be clear, don’t use plants to stave off infection if antibiotics are available.
It’s critically important to know what’s available around you and what these plants look like in all seasons. There are plenty of books on medicinal plants and herbs, but a local plant identification class where you’re shown exactly what to look for, what properties the plants have, and in what sort of habitat they typically thrive is the most helpful. By local, keep in mind that you may have to drive a few hours, but it’s always worth your effort if it could save your life. There are numerous plants that can be helpful, but it’s a good idea to keep a list of what you see in your area. If you wait until a scenario requires you to cram the material, it’ll be way too late. Preplanning and education is the key.
Wild onions and garlic are easy to spot in the wild if you’re looking for them. They can be helpful in fighting infection as well as inflammation. Whether you’re eating them or using them topically in a poultice, they can be a valuable asset to have handy. Apple cider vinegar is also good to keep handy because it has many uses in a survival situation and is difficult to make/source in a hurry. It can help kill bacteria due to its acidity, and can help treat skin infections, bladder infections, and diarrhea. I’d recommend drinking 1 to 2 teaspoons in a cup of water twice a day to bolster the immune system. The water can be room temperature or warmed.
Tea tree oil is also something to keep handy due to its many potential benefits, including as an antibacterial agent to help with skin. For skin ailments, apply the tea tree oil directly to a closed wound, such as a boil, then cover with a bandage. This will help as an antiseptic to prevent further infection from getting into the wound. One drop of tea tree oil in a teaspoon of coconut oil rubbed on the wound twice a day should assist with healing and reduce localized inflammation. Keep in mind that tea tree oil can be toxic if ingested, and some people may experience irritated skin after applying it. Make sure to try a small test spot to see how your skin reacts.
Eucalyptus oil and camphor oil can be helpful in upper respiratory infections to help open the airways and break up some mucus. They can be used as a steam and inhaled or applied topically. The camphor can also be good for inflammation by rubbing it onto the skin in the affected area. There are many commercially available camphor combination creams (often mixed with menthol) available at your local superstore. Acorns can be easy to find and are a good source to use as an antiseptic for wounds on the skin. A handful of acorns in a pint of water is adequate to be beneficial. You can increase the efficacy of the liquid by crushing, then boiling the acorns. Don’t drink the water as it can upset the stomach and cause abdominal pain. Instead, soak a cloth in the water and use it as a poultice or even a compress and place it on the affected area.
The use of a poultice goes way back in time and can be a useful addition to your survival skills. A poultice is a paste made of plant material, used to relieve inflammation or as a drawing salve for infection. It’s often placed on the injured area and covered with a cloth. Onions, charcoal, table salt or Epsom salt, or numerous herbs/plants (dandelion leaves, calendula flowers, and cayenne pepper) can be viable agents to cover a wound or area of inflammation.
As a general rule, use water as warm as you can tolerate without burning your skin to draw an infection and cold water to help with inflammation. Grind, crush, or pulverize the herb/plant/powder and add a little water to create a paste. You can then add it directly to the skin or onto a cloth if it irritates the skin. The best cloth would be cheesecloth. You want the paste to work on the skin, but not get too absorbed into the cloth. It’s important that the poultice stay on for several hours to maximize effectiveness. You may need to repeat two to three times a day, depending on its efficacy and the severity of the wound. If you have an open wound or abrasion, application of honey is useful. This serves as a barrier to help protect the wound from debris and bacteria, but also acts as a topical antibacterial agent. We often will use medical-grade honey in wound clinics at the hospital as an adjunct to other modalities to treat wounds.
When considering pet meds, you’re really faced with a bit of a dilemma. First is acquiring the drugs. Fish antibiotics are available without a prescription from many online retailers. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to buy them at your local retail pet store, as many of these medications are limited to distributors. With some foresight, however, an online retailer can have them to you in a few days. Many of the fish antibiotics are the same generic name and dose as for humans. This makes it easy for consumers in the self-reliance environment. Second, some folks question the safety and purity of fish antibiotics purchased online. Many are manufactured in the same facility as human antibiotics, but end up targeting a different market. The FDA doesn’t regulate fish antibiotics like they do other meds, so it’s often questioned whether they’re safe to take. Impurities, concentration of drug, and absorption inconsistency are a few issues often cited as a concern. You should first try your local doctor for standard human antibiotics. Some physicians are open to writing a prescription to have on hand for emergency use.
The important part of taking any antibiotic is to know what you’re treating with the antibiotic on hand. One antibiotic does not treat every infection. Taking an incorrect antibiotic may not treat the infection, and can allow the infection to progress as well as increase antibiotic resistance. This is why doctors don’t like to treat illnesses with antibiotics if they’re not needed, as antibiotic resistance has made it challenging to treat certain infections. The Sanford Guide to Antimicrobial Therapy is published every year and is an excellent choice to guide which antibiotic to use in a particular infection. Although this guide is directed towards humans, it would be valuable in guiding your choices in the lateral fish antibiotic market. I’ve kept one at my fingertips for the past 25 years.
When choosing which antibiotic to purchase (for your fish, of course), choose one that has a dose comparable to humans. The less “extra” ingredients, the better; however, this still may not ensure it’s free of impurities due to the lack of regulation. Next, get a variety of antibiotics, as one antibiotic doesn’t work for every infection. For example, a drug for a bladder infection may not be the best choice for a skin infection. Last, please put some thought into the decision to use the antibiotic. This should not be taken lightly, and in a survival situation should be reserved for life or death circumstances.
|Typical Adult Dose||Infectious Uses|
2x a day
2x a day
Infected diabetic foot
2x a day
2x a day
3x a day
|Some GYN infections|
Diverticulitis with Cipro (moderate cases)
A recently published book by Dr. Joe Alton and his wife Amy of Doom and Bloom Medical called Alton’s Antibiotics and Infectious Disease is easy to read and understand, and explores using antibiotics in an austere environment. It’s well worth picking up if you want to learn more about infectious disease and options for treatment. Check online retailers for books on medicinal plants as well. Find one specific for your area/region or make your own reference based on what you see around you.
Plants, poultices, and pet meds are excellent alternatives if nothing else is available to you. Otherwise, see your physician if you’re dealing with an infection. Pharmaceutical-grade antibiotics, if you need them, are the best choice for treating infections. For minor inflammation, you could certainly try plants and poultices, but I would caution you to stop these treatments if they’re not working and seek medical help. Lastly, pet meds like fish antibiotics are an option if no other antibiotics are available. I would only use them in a dire situation and wouldn’t take them in lieu of seeking medical treatment.
David L. Miller, DO, FACOI is an internist in private practice for 20 years. His experiences away from the office have included time as a fight doctor in regional MMA events and as a team physician for 10 years at a mid-major university in the Midwest. Currently, he serves as the lead medical instructor for the Civilian Crisis Response team based out of Indianapolis.