Spiked, Pricked and Poked

Know­ing how to deal with prickly west­ern flora will save you trips to the fam­ily physi­cian

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Jace Bauser­man

Know­ing how to deal with prickly west­ern flora will save you trips to the fam­ily physi­cian

Sweat leaked from my brow like a rusty faucet. I felt flushed, hot and nau­seous. I glanced at the clock. My group of rowdy fifth-graders would soon be re­turn­ing from lunch. I tried to stand, but the pain in my right knee was ex­cru­ci­at­ing. Some­thing was wrong. I made a se­cond at­tempt, and us­ing an old five-iron I kept be­hind my desk, I made it to my feet and hob­bled down to the nurse.

“Your temp is 101°F and your pulse is rac­ing,” Nurse Jerry said. “I’ll call and get you a sub, but you need to get home. You have the flu.”

“Should the tweez­ers break the spine, you’ll want to have more spine to work with. Break­ing it off at the skin will push the spine deeper into the flesh and could cause in­fec­tion.”

“It’s not the flu,” I rea­soned. “Some­thing is wrong with my right knee.”

That’s when things wors­ened. We couldn’t get my loose-fit­ting Dock­ers over my knee. Jerry had to cut my pants away. What we found wasn’t good. My knee was, ob­vi­ously, very swollen, beet-red and hot. In ad­di­tion, we no­ticed a cou­ple of pock­ets ooz­ing yel­low pus. He was stumped, but I knew ex­actly what was wrong.

A few weeks ear­lier while slink­ing across the prairie in search of pronghorn, my knee found its way into a patch of plains prickly pear (Opun­tia macrorhiza) cac­tus. Sev­eral of the inch-long spines stabbed my flesh. Other than the fa­mil­iar pain, I didn’t think much of it at the time. I re­mem­bered halt­ing my inch-by-inch crawl, jerk­ing out the ex­posed nee­dles and then mov­ing for­ward. In the days fol­low­ing, I felt more ir­ri­ta­tion in and around my knee than nor­mal. I guess I should have paid the spines a lit­tle more mind.

Hours later, I was sit­ting in the doc’s of­fice get­ting shots and a pre­scrip­tion for horse-pill­sized an­tibi­otics. My doc­tor, be­fore send­ing me on my way, said, “You need to pay close at­ten­tion to the cac­tus on the prairie. In this case, it caused a very se­vere in­fec­tion. If you’d

waited much longer, this would have be­come very se­ri­ous.”

Since then, I’ve been mak­ing it a point to pay very close at­ten­tion to the cac­tus I en­counter while hunt­ing the west­ern land­scape, and have since picked the brains of sev­eral doc­tors to get their rec­om­mended tips and tac­tics for re­mov­ing cac­tus nee­dles. How cac­tus spines are re­moved de­pends greatly on the par­tic­u­lar species of cac­tus em­bed­ded in your skin, so let’s re­view some com­mon va­ri­eties.

One of the most wide­spread prickly pears in the U.S., the west­ern prickly pear, sports green­ish pads with a bluish hue. They typ­i­cally form in low, wide­spread clumps of­ten par­tially cov­ered by prairie veg­e­ta­tion (sage, long grass and the like), which makes this species a com­mon prairie stab­ber. De­pend­ing on geo­graphic lo­ca­tion, the prickly pear will show­case yel­low or orange flow­ers with red cen­ters. Spine lengths are typ­i­cally 1-6 inches.

Prickly pear spines are long and thick. They’re dif­fi­cult to break, which makes tweezer re­moval an ex­cel­lent op­tion.

DOC­TOR TIP: When us­ing tweez­ers to re­move a cac­tus spine, al­ways start by grab­bing the spine to­ward the top. You don’t want to place the tweez­ers at the point where the cac­tus en­ters the skin. Should the tweez­ers break the

spine, you’ll want to have more spine to work with. Break­ing it off at the skin will push the spine deeper into the flesh and could cause in­fec­tion. Once the spine is out, treat the area with an al­co­hol pad.

These plants are typ­i­cally globe-shaped or cylin­dri­cal and stand up to 13 inches tall. They grow as sin­gle stems, but can also form clus­ters of up to a dozen plants. The spines are very short, of­ten red or orange in color, and will break off in clus­ters in the skin. Hedge­hog cac­tus spines are brit­tle when com­pared to the west­ern prickly pear, mak­ing tweezer re­moval dif­fi­cult.

DOC­TOR TIP: When deal­ing with any type of small cac­tus spine, es­pe­cially those that break off in small clus­ters, the key is not snap­ping the spines off in the skin. Duct tape can work, but isn’t the best op­tion as it will of­ten, when pushed on the skin, break the spines. The best bet is cov­er­ing the area in Elmer’s Glue and wait­ing five or 10 min­utes for the glue to dry. Once dry, peel the glue off slowly, and the at­tached spines should come out. Re­peat the process as many times as nec­es­sary, and be sure to clean the area with al­co­hol pads when fin­ished. In­fec­tion is less likely with these small, fi­brous spines, so don’t be as wor­ried if you break a few of them off. Typ­i­cally,

the bro­ken spines will fes­ter and pro­duce a pim­ple-like rise that can be popped. When popped, the spine will of­ten squirt out.

Grow­ing in low-spread­ing clus­ters, the plains prickly pear is the most wide­spread cac­tus in the U.S., rang­ing from west Texas to the Pa­cific Coast and north into Canada. This cac­tus can ap­pear with wrin­kled pads—pads that al­most look dead—as well as oval green­ish-yel­low pads. Spines vary greatly in length. This prairie nui­sance can be cloaked with yel­low or pink flow­ers, and will put longer (up to 3-inch), thin­ner and light-col­ored spines into the skin. Ad­di­tion­ally, it will also put count­less shorter, darker-col­ored spines into the body.

DOC­TOR TIP: Use tweez­ers in com­bi­na­tion with Elmer’s Glue to ex­tract em­bed­ded spines.

Watch for the Symp­toms

Should an area be­come in­fected (red, swollen, a le­sion-leak­ing pus, hot to the touch), med­i­cal at­ten­tion should be sought im­me­di­ately. It’s also not un­com­mon, due to the in­fec­tion, to feel nau­seous and ex­pe­ri­ence an in­creased heart rate.

Af­ter my class­room co­nun­drum, I now un­der­stand how im­por­tant it is to deal with skin-em­bed­ded cac­tus spines promptly. I hope you’ll use care and cau­tion next time you have a prickly en­counter of your own.

A west­ern prickly pear in bloom Sci­en­tific Name: Com­mon Name:

(above) Elmer’s Glue works great to re­move small spines and fi­brous clus­ters. Spread the glue over the af­fected area and wait for it to dry, then gen­tly peel it away. (be­low) When deal­ing with larger spines—spines that are thick, long and...

A plains prickly pear in bloom

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