Fern frond: the pale promise of a lush summer
On the weekend, our family travelled to the cottage to open it up for the season. The long-awaited day was sunny and warm, and all the familiar signs of an island spring were there: trilliums in the woods, wild columbine near the house, trailing arbutus flowering on rocky slopes. Warblers, goldfinches, chickadees and phoebes, back from their winter haunts, twittered exuberantly, and the sun sparkled like diamonds on the deep blue lake.
As the guys got the water system working, uncovered the chimney and carried heavy benches to our favourite shore-side lookouts, we gals busied about taking furnishings and kitchen implements out of mouse-proof storage, putting down my mother’s hand-hooked rugs, setting out iconic Muskoka chairs, sweeping old pine needles from paths and getting a start on tidying the gardens.
I reveled getting my hands dirty as I gathered up last autumn’s leaves and pulled weeds. I dug up a clump of thyme to take home with me. The original was planted many years back by my sister and has spread happily along the garden’s border and in the crevices of the concrete path and stairs leading down to the dock. In summer, when we’re there for our vacation, I love sitting on those sunny steps with a cup of tea, brushing my hands idly through the fragrant herb. Potting it up for our balcony at home will be a little reminder of those blissful times.
Blueberry bush blossoms
With these pleasant tasks and beautiful weather came a pesky scourge that can’t be avoided this time of year in southern Ontario: blackflies. (Mosquito season comes a little later, oh bliss, oh joy!) Even with the breezes from the lake, working outside or taking a photo walk in the woods invites hordes of these voracious biters. I came home with a mass of bites, mostly on my scalp and nape of the neck, but they even managed to get under my shirt, down my pants and through my socks! If you don’t know blackflies, the worst bites take a bloody chunk out of you, and the histamine in their saliva (similar to mosquitoes) causes an unsightly, itchy, oozing red lump that can last for days.
The first step in a garden-variety insect bite remedy is to clean the site with water, alcohol wipes or rubbing alcohol. (If you’re bitten by a poisonous species, or if a severe allergic reaction occurs, seek medical help immediately.) Alcohol creates a cooling sensation as it dries out and shrinks the bite, helping to reduce swelling and inflammation; it also disinfects to help prevent infection.
After that, I used what I already had in the first-aid section of the apothecary: Burt’s Bees Res-Q ointment, which contains soothing oils of olive, sunflower, soybean and canola, beeswax and cocoa butter, Vitamin E (tocopherol), plus lavender, rosemary and comfrey extracts. The ointment smells lovely and, although greasy, was instantly soothing and itch-calming. Badger’s unscented Baby Balm with chamomile and calendula, or any calendula salve, would work fine, too. Calendula is a powerful antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and wound healer and is safe on babies and for application to open cuts or bites. (However, it is known to cause allergic reaction in some individuals and shouldn’t be used by pregnant women.)
Although I got some relief with the salve, I began to wonder – as always – if I could find a cheaper alternative, using what was already in my cupboards. After some research and testing, I settled on the following simple treatments that cost pennies, or nothing at all, take only seconds to prepare, and can be found in most kitchens or gardens.
Ten Natural Bug Bite Relief Remedies
The methods marked with an asterisk (*) were tested on myself. While each provided some degree of temporary relief, I’ve listed them from the most to least effective, with a few untested ones at the end.
* Witch Hazel: Cleanses and cools, constricts blood vessels and reduces inflammation, eases pain, itching and burning and speeds healing. I found immediate, lasting relief with this one, and for me, witch hazel was the clear winner … literally, as it leaves no colour or residue, and the odor is very mild. The alcohol in the brand I used is beneficial in this case, but you can find alcohol-free varieties. To use: Moisten a cotton ball and apply to affected area up to four times per day.
* Apple Cider Vinegar: Any type of vinegar is antibacterial and astringent. Apple cider vinegar is less acidic than other varieties, and its alkalinity helps balance the pH level of the affected area. It can be used on its own, or you can add essential oil for added benefit. This is best used on small areas; otherwise, you’ll end up smelling like salad dressing! Don’t use on open wounds. To use: Dampen a cotton ball with vinegar (white vinegar works, too) and apply to the bite. Or, add up to 5 drops of lavender essential oil to 1 tsp of vinegar, soak cotton ball and apply hourly. For a lasting effect, tape the soaked cotton ball over the bite for an hour or two.
* Baking Soda or Oatmeal: An alkaline paste of baking soda and water neutralizes the pH level of the surrounding skin and reduces itching, and oatmeal soothes inflammation. If the bites are many or the discomfort intense, soak for a few minutes in a baking soda or oatmeal bath. Spot application will leave a white or pasty residue. To use: Combine 1 tsp of baking soda or oatmeal with 1 tsp warm water to make a paste. (Optional: add a couple of drops of lavender oil.) Apply directly to skin with a cotton ball or fingers and allow to dry. Alternatively, add ½ cup baking soda or 1 cup oatmeal to a warm bath.
* Lemons and Limes: The citric acid in these fruits has itch-relieving properties. To use: Rub a slice of lemon or lime, or dab their juice onto the insect bite.
* Black Tea: The astringent tannins in black tea help shrink inflammation and reduce discomfort. Take care to avoid staining clothes with the tea. To use: After making a nice cuppa, press the warm tea bag to the affected area, reusing the same bag a few times before discarding.
* Basil or Peppermint Leaves: Basil is anti-inflammatory and contains thymol and camphor which are natural itch relievers, and peppermint works to cool an inflamed or burning bite. Note that the juice from the crushed leaves will stain the skin a light olive green until it’s washed off. To use: Crush fresh basil or peppermint leaves using a mortar and pestle or your fingers and apply the paste directly to bite.
* Honey: Honey is antimicrobial and soothing. Because it’s so sticky, this is best used on open areas that won’t come in contact with clothing, furnishings or dirt. To use: Dab raw, unprocessed honey on bite.
Essential Oils: Each of these essential oils has its own properties to help ease and heal the pain, itch and burning of insect bites and stings. You could make up a little vial or rollerball bottle for easy and portable application. To use: Dilute a few drops of one of the above in a spoonful of olive or coconut oil and dab a little on skin. Two or three essential oils can also be combined in a larger quantity of carrier oil for a more intense treatment if the bites or stings are severe.
Lavender – analgesic, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, calming
Peppermint – contains menthol which cools burning and stinging
German chamomile – reduces inflammation and encourages healing
Eucalyptus – antiseptic and analgesic
Rosemary – reduces itch and irritation
Tea tree (melaleuca) – antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving (not to be used on open wounds)
Aloe Vera: Aside from a commercial preparation, you can use gel straight from the aloe plant. Make sure you have the true Aloe vera species, not another variety, as this is the only one that is therapeutic and can safely be used on skin. To use: Break off a leaf, scoop out the inner gel and apply directly to the bite.
Chamomile Tea Ice Cubes: Chamomile has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cleansing properties, and the application of cold to a bite brings down swelling and reduces pain. To use: Freeze brewed, cooled chamomile tea in an ice cube tray. Apply cube for a few seconds at a time to the inflamed bite.