Maybe you're twenty miles off the pavement, hiking through a narrow desert canyon. Or maybe, two martinis into your aunt's cocktail party, you take a wrong turn through her succulent garden. Whether they find you in the wilderness or in the botanic garden, cactus spines can hurt -- and the little hairy kind called glochids can actually pose a risk to your health if you aren't careful. It's always best to prevent coming up against cactus spines, but if that fails here's how to repair the damage.
There are two basic kinds of cactus spines. There are the stout kind, possessed by most cacti, that are best treated the same way you'd treat a splinter, and there are the aforementioned glochids, which require a whole different method of extraction.
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Let's discuss the standard spines first. With most cacti, coming up against the spines isn't going to detach them from the plant unless you really wail on the plant, as I did here with my bare foot. Though uncomfortable, getting punctured by a cactus spine that then has the decency to stay attached to its parent plant is best treated the way you would any other scratch or puncture wound. Make sure your new piercing is as clean as possible. In the backcountry, this may require wet cloths and something along the lines of hand sanitizer. If you're within range of plumbing, soap and water will work just fine. Then just keep an eye on the wound as it heals to make sure you don't become infected.
Cacti with thin spines are much more likely to break off and lodge in your skin. For the most part, you should be able to remove these the way you would a small splinter. Ideally you'd do so with tweezers, though if you lack them you might be able to scrape the spines loose with the blade of a pocketknife, and it should go without saying exercising extreme caution while doing so.
If none of the spine protrudes above the skin removal is going to be much more difficult. If the spine is near the surface of a tough patch of skin, on a heel or a kneecap or someplace similar, you may be able to work it out with a sterilized needle.
If that's too much like surgery and the spine isn't causing you too much discomfort, you might reasonably decide to leave the spine in place to dissolve slowly over a few weeks. A lot of people who come into frequent contact with cacti do just that. However, you do run significantly increased risk of infection by leaving any foreign body in your skin, and you don't know what kind of horrible thing might have gotten itself all over that spine before it found its new home -- anything from bird poop to a decomposing carcass might have smeared the spine before you got there.
Thus the best approach for deeply lodged spines you can't remove on your own is to see a doctor, trained First Aid provider, or other person who knows what she's doing to remove those spines for you. The benefit there is that you can also have them look over the wound for infection and help you keep it clean while you heal.
That's for standard spines. Glochids are another matter entirely.
There is no such thing as one glochid wound. If you have a glochid penetrate your skin, more than likely it has come with several hundred of its friends. Glochids detach with a slight breeze, work their way into your skin to what would be their hilt if they had hilts, and their shafts are barbed so that it's harder to extract them than it should be.
The good news is that there are just a few kinds of cacti that have glochids: prickly pears and cholla. The bad news is that there are a lot of prickly pears and cholla out there. The worse news is that even the most effective means of removing glochids from your skin are about 95 percent effective, meaning five percent of those glochids remain. And the damn things hurt a lot more than their size would indicate, causing pangs from annoying to excruciating when you rub that patch of skin the wrong way.
There's one thing you absolutely should not do when you get pierced by a bunch of glochids: do not bring the injured part of your body anywhere near your mouth. More people than you'd believe, getting a patch of glochids stuck in their hand, bring their hand up to their mouth in an almost involuntary attempt to suck the offending spines out of their skin. The danger here is that sometimes it works: the glochids get sucked out of your skin and into your mouth. There they can lodge in your tongue, your gums, and even your windpipe with effects ranging from severely unpleasant to fatal.
Similarly, under no circumstances should you touch your face, especially near your eyes.
Your first line of defense with glochids is the same as with their larger, less infuriating cousins: tweezers. Given bright light, patience, and a tweezer operator with good eyesight, you can remove a bit more than half of the glochids transferred in most mishaps by careful tweezing. It helps that the things tend to come off the plant in clumps: with one pull you might be able to remove a couple dozen glochids.
You can also use adhesives to remove glochids en masse. I've used duct tape to good effect, applying it to the affected area and then ripping it off. This removes between a third and half the glochids with reasonable efficiency, along with any local hair and occasionally the top millimeter of skin.
Apparently the most effective method of removing glochids is a two-step process. First, remove as many as you can with tweezers. Second, wrap the affected area in gauze and soak the gauze thoroughly in white glue. Wait for the glue to dry and peel off the gauze. The combination of the two methods can help you get all but 5 percent of the glochids out.
Frustratingly, even the most effective removal methods often leave the barbed tips of the glochids embedded in skin. For many people this isn't a problem, or causes only minor discomfort. But these leftover barbules can cause seriously annoying dermatitis, which is best treated by the incredibly laborious and unpleasant process of scraping the sores open and removing the barbules with dissecting tools and a microscope.
Obviously, the best way to deal with glochids is to admire them from a distance.
One last cactus spine removal scenario is suggested by the photo up top: often enough, an entire section of cholla will lodge in your skin and refuse to fall off. You should resist the temptation to try to pull the section away with your free hand, as you'll almost certainly end up impaling that hand. Even more importantly, do not attempt to dislodge the cholla stem by vigorous shaking of the limb it's attached to. I've heard of more than one person who has had the cholla come off at high speed, headed straight for their face.
Instead, use a foreign object to pry the section off of you. Many desert rats accustomed to living in cholla country will carry a large comb with them: it's an excellent tool for prying cholla stems off yourself. Lacking a comb, find a clean stick -- not a cactus skeleton, as those often have spines sill attached -- and use it to gently pry the stem off yourself, with a minimum of subsequent flinging. Then inspect your skin for patches of glochids and get out the tweezers and white glue.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. He writes from Joshua Tree regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here and follow him on Twitter.