Cactus Pain

NOTE: Information in this article primarily applies to cactus spines that have clinged onto extremities (i.e. arms and legs). Please seek professional help for removal of spines from facial areas and other sensitive body parts.

  • Wow, I've never seen a creeping cholla in the wild! Let me touch it and test out its spines. OUCH!! Oh, these spines are not much a problem. Here, let me use my other hand to dislodge the joint.OUCH!!.
  • Blindly walking down a desert trail, I turned to my fellow hiker. "You say that you were once a Ranger here at Saguaro?" Whack!!...OUCH!! Boy, I didnt remember that Cane Cholla being there before. Perhaps after I remove these spines from my chest, I'll pay more attention to where I'm walking.
  • These sorry weeds! You rake and rake with this hand tiller and you just cant get all of them. Let me pull them out with my hands. Boom!!...OUCH!! "Whats wrong?" "Oh, after getting stuck once my knee-jerk reaction forced me into a boxing match with a Notocactus. He won." A sore knuckle for two weeks almost got me to the Doctor!
  • Oh!, thats cute. Teddy Bear Cholla joints on the boots. Here let me help you rid yourself of them. OUCH!! They say that if its true love, when you let them go, they'll be sure to come back.

If you mess around with cacti or hike around cactus country you are bound to have close encounters with cactus spines like I describe above.

What are the worst cactus spines out there? The cacti that are most prevalent in North America - The Opuntia - have the worst in my opinion. The Opuntia cacti are more commonly known as prickly pears and cholla. Not only do these plants have spines that are highly visible, they also possess glochids: fine, almost microscopic spines. If you look at a glochid under a high-powered microscope, you will find that the pointed end actually consists of backward-pointing barbs that are perfectly designed to stay embedded within the skin. Couple this with a spine base that is very loosely attached to the plant and you have a nasty character that loves to hitch a free ride anytime it can.

Here is the procedure that I follow to remove embedded spines (glochids):

  • If the cactus stem or pad is still attached, dont touch it with your hands/fingers. Use a plastic comb or two sticks to grasp underneath the stem and flick it away. Make sure that you dont flick the stem onto other parts of your body or in the general direction of someone else!
  • You'll most probably have some visible cactus spines that didn't want to come out. A good pair of pliers or tweezers can be used to take these out. You may have a small amount of bleeding that will need to be stopped by applying pressure with a sterile bandage.
  • Now its time to deal with the glochids. Unless you have excellent vision, a good magnifying glass is very handy in locating these spines. Once the glochids are located, use tweezers to gently remove them from the skin. Not having any luck with the tweezers? Get out the gauze bandage and white glue. Coat the spines with a layer of white glue and gently press the gauze bandage onto the glue. Let dry. Once dry, pull the gauze bandage off of your skin. The spines should come out with the bandage.
  • Your skin not looking to good now? By all means, treat the puncture wounds as you would any minor cut. Washing with soap and water is great. Antibiotic creams and bandages: sure, if needed.

Didn't work? Most visible spines should come out by following the procedure above. I have had to live with glochids on occasion. Almost all usually fester with time and work their way to the top of the skin. When this happens, a good pair of tweezers can deal with them.



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