Appalachia Appalachia Through My Eyes

Appalachia Through My Eyes – Dew Poisoning

Dew posioning

A few weeks ago, dew poisoning came up here on the Blind Pig. I had heard the term before from Miss Cindy, but I had no clue what it actually meant. She said her Grandmother warned her about getting dew poisoning when she was a girl running around barefooted in the summer.

I asked Granny and Pap if they knew about dew poisoning. Granny said “Why yes I was just talking about it this morning. I tried to bandage up the cut on my finger before I went to pick beans but the dew was so heavy it soaked through anyway. But I think it will be okay because my cut is almost healed.” (Granny cut her finger on a rusty canning lid the other day)

I asked Granny if children were warned about the dangers of dew poisoning when she was little and she said you only had to worry about it if you had an open cut or sore. If dew entered the wound it was thought to cause infection.

Pap said when he was a boy, the old timers said if you had a cut or open sore during the dog days of summer you had to stay out of the dew or you’d get blood poisoning.

Rush, a blind pig reader discovered dew poisoning can be related to horses. Here’s the explanation:

Dew poisoning is another name for a condition also known as scratches, grease heel, cracked heel, mud fever or pastern dermatitis. It usually affects the pasterns and fetlocks, often in the hindlegs. It tends to start from the legs being wet (hence the name dew poisoning), and the skin softening. The softened skin leaves the door open for Staph bacteria to invade and cause infection in the skin. These horses usually have raw, sore areas on their lower legs, or may have crusts that are painful to remove. The treatment is to clip any extra hair, clean the area with a chlorhexidine-based  product (Nolvasan solution is one), gently removing scabs as they loosen, and thoroughly dry the area. The legs then need to be kept out of wet grass and bedding to heal.

Then I got the bright idea to look in one of my books, Folk Medicine In Southern Appalachia. This is what it had to say on the subject:

Fall Sores

Also known as “dew poisoning” and “ground itch,” fall sores are lesions that form on the feet, legs, and arms caused by scratches becoming infected with bacteria. In the past, they were most common during the fall but they also appeared during the dog days of summer. The Pennsylvania Germans called them “hunspocke” (dog pimples). Since many children went barefoot during the summer and fall, the feet were particularly vulnerable. Sores that formed on the soles of the feet were called “dew cracks” in Kentucky and “grannies” in Alabama. Various slaves or ointments such a sheep tallow and turpentine, sweet milk and gunpowder, brown sugar and kerosene, or hog lard and sulfur, were applied to the sores. Some people applied balsam sap, wrapped the feet in rabbit tobacco leaves or bathed them with boiled sassafras root water.

So there you have it-a few explanations for dew poisoning. Since there’s not near as many kids running around barefoot today I suppose the old term has almost slipped away with time. But now we’ve revived it, at least for a while.


Appalachia Through My Eyes – A series of photographs from my life in Southern Appalachia.


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  • Reply
    July 13, 2020 at 6:25 pm

    I got it when I was young. It was awful my feet and toes were raw. I couldn’t wear shoes for seemed like weeks and had to wear flops. Had to attend school with it and my feet and toes looked horrible. I don’t remember what the solve was that the Dr. prescribed but Thank God it worked. I never went out barefoot in the grass again. Matter of fact I can’t stand the feel of wet shoes.

  • Reply
    August 11, 2016 at 5:51 pm

    Lee Smith talks about it some in “Oral History”. I thought it was related to a plant that grows in the shaded parts of the pasture that is toxic to cows & affects milk quality.
    If you haven’t read that book, you should!

  • Reply
    January 28, 2014 at 8:12 pm

    I had “Fall Sores” one summer as a kid growing up in WV. All the kids played barefoot, in creeks and streams, mud holes during the summer months. My legs and arms were covered with lesions and they were painful. Our family physician recommended that my parents use a violet liquid that we put on every sore with a q-tip. It stains the skin, but cleared me up in a week. I had purple polka dotted legs and arms that summer! Haha

  • Reply
    Jim Allen
    August 11, 2013 at 10:58 am

    I know this is very late, but was wondering if y’all are referring to what was called ‘toe itch’ in my small corner of WV.
    Toe itch was any small cuts usually between the toes, that were supposedly caused by the dew, and were difficult to heal up.
    Fall sores were skin ulcers (decubitary?) usually covered by gnats. It received a dose of Lysol, or Turpentine.
    I remember the healed spots that wouldn’t tan showing on feet at the swimming hole.
    Cure for ‘toe itch’ was an application of the milky sap from broken spurge stems.
    (I have no idea why it worked)

  • Reply
    September 8, 2012 at 9:57 am

    I have never heard this before. Interesting!
    I was always told to stay out of the water during the dog days of summer. No swimming in creeks or rivers with open wounds.

  • Reply
    Lonnie Dockery
    August 20, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Mother warned us about going barefoot before the dew was off the grass. She said we might get “dew poisoning”. She wasn’t as strict about that as she was other things though, so I don’t think she really believed it.

  • Reply
    August 19, 2012 at 2:54 am

    I had never heard of dew poisoning before, but I am familar with rain rot on horses as we live in this rain 10 months of the year state. The best thing I’ve found for it is to use listerine (or the generic one) 1/2 and 1/2 with water and spray it on the horse’s back daily and usually it will begin to heal up in a few days and although the hair will fall out, it will grow right back and the horse will be happier and healthier once this infection has been taken care of. It even works when it’s still during the rainy season, although it takes a bit longer.

  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    August 17, 2012 at 10:38 pm

    My mama wouldn’t let us go out in the summer at all til the dew dried(no shoes allowed after June 1st!), so I’ve never had dew pizen-but I have suffered from from watching, watching, watching & waiting, waiting, waiting for that darn grass to dry!

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    August 15, 2012 at 10:06 pm

    I’ve never heard of dew poisoning before.

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    August 15, 2012 at 1:46 am

    wow tipper… you are so amazing.. and i am always in awe of your interesting stories and folklore..
    i am one who is guilty of going barefoot… in the house.. i am never with anything on my feet.. and soon as the weather is warm.. i go outside without shoes also.. thankfully i have never been afflicted with dew poisoning. as for spiders and webs.. eek.. lol
    i still get shivers from the last time you posted about spiders.. and even had pictures.. uck.
    hope all are happy and well.. sending big ladybug hugs

  • Reply
    Tim Mc
    August 14, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    I can testify to Dew Poisoning/ infection, cut my foot once as a child and walked in the dew, ( Mama warned me ) and I got an infection in my foot a lot worse than the cut was, Also I’ve heard of the Dog Days, we were told that a sore would take longer to heal during this time and seems to me like our scraps and cuts did take a lot longer to heal than any other time of the year.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    August 14, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    That is a completely new one on me. Never heard of dew poisoning or anything like it.

  • Reply
    Stephen Ammons
    August 14, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Dew Poisoning is caused by a nasty little critter called Dermatophilus Congolenis. It is most common in horses and cattle and mainly on their legs. If it is elsewhere on their body it’s called Rain scald or rot,mud fever,or Streptithricosis. By the way I can type these words but no way would I try to pronounce them. Humans can also get these conditions and the only treatment is to keep the area clean , dry and takes time to heal.
    As Ed mentioned Epsom salts might cure it but not sure. I was good for everything from Rabies to insect bites. Have a super day. 🙂

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Congradulations on going over 1500
    readers, there’s lots more.
    I ain’t even sure if I’ve heard the term ‘dew poisoning’, but when
    I was a kid we used turpentine a
    lot and it never hurt any of us,
    like Miss Cindy said. Daddy even
    put it on our dogs when they got
    snake bit. They lived!
    Sandy tickled me over her bout
    with poison ivy…Ken

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 14, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    That rain rot must be what I’ve got. I have the hair loss but not the scabbing. But its on my head not my rump. Guess we’ll have call it roof rot?

  • Reply
    Uncle Al
    August 14, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    You’re truly amazing Tipper! Who in the world could come up with all the great informational tid-bits. Thanks for taking the time out of your day to share. By the way, I had not heard of Dew Poisoning. Never too old to learn!!

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    August 14, 2012 at 11:54 am

    One more thing….
    Isn’t that the type of web the Indians used as a poultice, that would stick and cover small wounds…Just wondering seems like I read it somewhere…
    Maybe I won’t think of anything else today…but this….
    Back in the day at Aunts and Grannys…I can just see those type of webs and the tunnel webs on the dew covered boxwoods…I now have be four boxwoods, but they don’t smell like Grannys boxwoods and so far no thick matted webs have shown up…Thanks Tipper, I think it is because these are hybrid boxwoods and not NC boxwoods…LOL I plan on stealing me a NC boxwood, the next time I’m in NC…so look out if you have the oldtimey smelly round boxwood in your yard folks…

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    August 14, 2012 at 11:47 am

    There is a way to capture the spider webs on glass…let them dry and paint on them…I am so a’feered of spiders…but have tried it…I didn’t have good luck but still want to keep trying…Have you ever tried it Tipper?…The result is supposed to give a sparkling glossy effect to the object painted! I know we have paints today with irridescense but still want to see what would happen…

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I have never heard of dew poisoning but I can tell you about poison ivy. The first year I moved to TN my husband cut a lot of brush behind our house and being him he took a nap on our bed. I had it in my hair in my ears on my legs and arms. And places I won’t talk about. That was 3 years ago and some of the sores have not healed yet. I think it destroyed my immune system. Now I look like a meth addict if I were not so fat.

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    August 14, 2012 at 11:37 am

    I also couln’t stand it until I researched dew poisoning…Most of what I read was related to horses…I still am not convinced that dew causes the poisoning…I think the dog days heat and scratches, bites will tend to get infected if kept moist every day.
    There is a lot of vicious bacteria in our yards, barnyards especially and fields…moisture and not keeping the area clean, treated and dry can lead to a severe infection…I’ve tromped thru creeks barefoot in very hot weather…Then I read of the young girl falling from the zip line and getting a cut from falling in the creek, that lead to MRSA (sic) and then almost losing her life…I do believe the carefree days of safe mountain streams, creeks, and branches are harbouring dangerous changing bacteria…
    Thanks for this post…I am still on occasion, stepping out in the dew barefoot…but I make sure I don’t have a scratch or cut on my toes….
    Thanks Tipper,

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 10:36 am

    Dew poisoning is indeed a problem with horses, but easily avoided if you keep the “feathers” clipped and the pasterns clean. There is a related–I’m thinking–problem called rain rot that causes scabbing and very painful hair loss on horses’ rumps. Our old Thoroughbred used to suffer from it something awful. He’d be almost bald by the time he’d shed his winter coat.

  • Reply
    Gary Powell
    August 14, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Granny warned me about dew poisoning, but if I ever got it I don’t remember. She would have likely cured it with coal oil, which was a cure for most everything. At least it didn’t come with a list of side effects that were worse than the ailment.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    August 14, 2012 at 10:25 am

    I remember that! my dad’s go-to remedy was sugar/kerosene, too.

  • Reply
    Debby Brown
    August 14, 2012 at 9:47 am

    oh goodness we were never allowed out without shoes during Dog Days! I never knew what it was called but Mama said if dew got in a cut it would never heal.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I’ve not heard of dew poisoning, but that description of scratches on a horse brought back some memories alright; the folds of skin right above the back of the hind hooves especially were in a constant state. It was a bear to get rid of. I remember using a sulphur cream, but it took ages.

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    August 14, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Very interesting! I have learned something today. I will admit that I have never heard about dew poisoning, but I can assure you that I will not be walking in dew covered grass again. I think I have been lucky, and I don’t want my luck to wear out.

  • Reply
    teresa atkinson
    August 14, 2012 at 9:03 am

    That picture is beautiful — I love to see the dew in the webs —

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 9:01 am

    very interesting information I have run barefoot all my life and the soles of my feet are as hard as a pair of shoes so I guess the dew poisoning could never get thru—and I often do not have shoes on my feet to attend to my sheep and goats—perhaps I have just been lucky.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 8:26 am

    I never hear anything about that anymore. As a child I often heard about “dog days” and the precautions one must take. We were cautioned to watch for snakes as they were blind during dog days and would strike easily. It was easy to get an infection. I distinctly remember the white shoe polish we used to polish our white bucks would sour, and clothes had to be dried well or they would smell. My Mom spoke about her poor Dad having to wrap a Fall Sore every day before he went to work. Later in life we were caautioned not to have any surgical procedure at that time.
    I hope Granny is up to date on her Tetanus shots.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 14, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Very interesting Tipper, at the time when my grandmother warned me about dew poisoning I had a nasty gash on the bottom of my foot. I had cut it the day before on glass in the creek and couldn’t make a bandage stay on it so it was just an open gaping wound. My grandmother really wanted me to stay in and keep it clean but I was having none of that. It was daylight and I wanted
    In adult years looking back and with no idea what dew poisoning was I decided that she was probably 100% correct about the danger. With the wound open and fresh the dampness of the dew could have carried any available bacteria straight in to my body causing an infection at best and blood poisoning at worst. What can I say, I was a willful kid!
    Now, your article also mentioned turpentine. That was the antiseptic of choice in my house growing up. Not only did it kill bacteria but I was told that it would take away the soreness if applied soon after the injury.
    A bottle of turpentine could be purchased at the drugstore and lasted a long time. When my last bottle finally ran out I went to the drugstore to replace it and it was no longer on the shelf. I talked to the pharmacist and was told that it was poison and no longer sold.
    Funny, I used it all my life with no adverse effects!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 14, 2012 at 7:51 am

    I think the reason we don’t hear so much about dew poisoning to that younger people are tending toward the wussy side. When I was growing up the kid didn’t run to mommy with a sore or cut ’til it got so bad we thought we were at death door. We just looked for red streaks running from the sore. If red streaks got to your heart you wuz a goner. We picked our own sores, splinters and briars with mommy’s sewing needles or the tip of a sharp knife. Of course we sterilized it by striking a match and holding it in the flame. Mommy kept a drawer full of bandages made from worn out sheets “well bleached of course.”
    We hesitated to tell Mommy because that meant Epsom salts soaks. If it was on our feet we had to put them in hot water (just under the boiling point.) Anywhere else on our rusty bodies, we dipped a washrag in the hot water and held it too the wound. The torture wasn’t so much the temperature of the water, it was the 30 minutes to an hour we had to sit still while the other kids were outside playing. After we had done our time it was a splash of Blairs Red Liniment and off we’d go to die another day.

  • Reply
    August 14, 2012 at 7:38 am

    That’s totally different than what I thought. I’ve heard that there’s a plant that grows in shady parts of the pasture that will harm cows if they graze on it. I think their milk becomes poisonous to humans as well.

  • Reply
    kathryn Magendie
    August 14, 2012 at 7:33 am

    I went barefoot all the time — don’t know if I ever had dew poisoning, but I sure had some tough feet! ;-D I still barefoot it around the house . .. that’s why I love flip flops so much – like having bare feet. 😀

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    August 14, 2012 at 7:30 am

    I had not heard the term “dew poisioning” in a long time, but it was quite common in my childhood years. And anytime we got a scratch, a mosquito bite that itched us and we scratched it, we would be warned, “Don’t get in the dewey grass with this. It will really get to be a mess.” And, as I recall, it really would become infected and painful. So there must have been something to the warning of our parents and elders about “dew poisioning.” To see the dew on grass, it looks so pristine and beautiful. It’s hard to think that it could have bacteria that would attack an open wound and get it badly infected. But maybe the danger is there, lurking in those glistening drops of dew!

  • Reply
    Tim Hassell
    August 14, 2012 at 6:22 am

    Dew poisoning is real and it takes a very long while to cure. I got dew poisoning on the top of my foot, right at the bend of my ankle one Fall. Fresh air and keeping it dry is hard to do during the increasingly colder temperatures of Fall and early Winter. I tried all kinds of OTC medicines and salves, but in the end I think plain old coal oil is what took care of it.

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