Appalachian Medicine

Dew Poisoning

Dew posioning

dew poison, dew poisoning noun Sores or a rash on the feet or ankles believed to be caused by contact with the dew. This was more likely to occur in summer (and sometimes said to be confined to the dog days of July and August), but was also known in the spring. One is said to get dew poison by walking through wet grass in the morning.
1913 Kephart Our Sthn High 229 Some of the ailments common in the mountains were new to me. For instance, “dew pizen,” presumable the poison of some weed, which, dissolved in dew enters the blood through a scratch or abrasion. As a woman described it, “Dew pizen comes like a risin’, and laws-a marcy, how it does hurt. My leg swelled up black clar to the knee…I lay on a pallet on the floor for over a month…I’ve seed persons jes’ a lot of sores all over, big as my hand, from dew pizen.” 1939 Hall Coll. Gatlinburg TN Balsam sap [is] good kidney medicine, also good for sores caused by dew poisoning. 1959 Pearsall Little Smoky 154 They take cognizance of vaguely defined maladies like “hives” and “bold hives,” “phthisic” and other “lung fevers,” “dew poison,” “fall sores,” “swelling” and “bloat.” 1960 Hall Smoky Mt Folks 50 St. John’s weeds wet with dew …will cause sores and “risin’s” (dew poisoning) on the skin. 1994 Montgomery Coll. (Cardwell, Ogle, Shields). [1997 King Mt Folks 103 They got sores (the dew was poison in dog days); so they boiled blackberry brier leaves, mixed it with lard to stay on, and put it on the sores.]

Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English

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Miss Cindy told me her Grandmother cautioned her about getting dew poisoning when she was a girl running around barefooted in the summer.

If Granny has a cut or scratch on her hands or arms she bandages it up tight before going out into the wet dewy garden for fear of getting dew poisoning.

I asked Granny if children were warned about the dangers of dew poisoning when she was little and she said yes but you only had to worry about it if you had an open cut or sore so it wasn’t so bad. If dew entered the wound it was thought to cause infection.

Pap told me 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.

The book Folk Medicine In Southern Appalachia had this 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 salves 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.

When I was about 12 years old one of my best friends had a horrible case of Impetigo all over her feet and legs. If I could go back I’d ask her if she’d been out in the dew.

Tipper

 

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Lewis Morris
    March 12, 2020 at 8:31 am

    In southern GA (USA) in the 40’s and 50’s going barefoot was common except during Winter. We frequently got “ground itch”. Our remedy was a mash made of the green husk from a walnut tree. Did it work or, who knows? From my own experience I believe the itch was caused by having wet feet from the “dew or fog or mist” and then contacting certain vines and plants that caused the tiny bumps, usually on the tops of toes and feet – and they itched like crazy!

  • Reply
    Suzanne Boyd
    August 29, 2019 at 1:22 am

    When I was a little girl my Daddy always me don’t go barefoot in dewy grass during dog days. That was rough on me as I went barefoot all summer except for church and going to town. I enjoyed reading the comments and thinking about my Daddy.

  • Reply
    Lula Mae VanWinkle
    February 20, 2019 at 6:21 am

    When I was a young adult, we had a new doctor in town that was younger than I was. I got a burning swelling on my big toe and asked my doctor what it could be. He didn’t know at that time, I told him all the older ladies that lived around me said it was dew poisoning. He said he had never heard of it. I was famous for running around bare footed. Any way, later he said to me that he had asked his grannie if she ever heard of dew poisoning and she said, “Of course.” He asked her what caused it and she replied, “Dew does dummy.” I have laughed over that for many a year now, he studied and said there are organisms in the dew that will enter a pore or sore and cause problems. I have had a problem with that toe for all these years and seem to have a fungus under the nail. This was back in the late 60’s, early 70’s. Something to those old sayings. Believe me!

  • Reply
    CPR
    September 3, 2018 at 11:10 pm

    We warned of weed poisoning as children and I had a case of it one year. Small blood red sores all over my lower legs up to the knees. I don’t remember it hurting but I do recall it it itched something fierce.

  • Reply
    Andrea Burch
    August 31, 2017 at 7:22 am

    What a beautiful shot of the morning dew….thank you so much for this blog, it brings great pleasure to me.

  • Reply
    Ron Banks
    August 30, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    We were warned about dew poison as kids and if we had a cut or scratch on our foot we were not allowed to go out barefoot while the dew was on the grass. I know I broke that rule on more than one occasion and I was never afflicted with the dreaded dew poison.
    In the summer I only wore shoes when we went to church or when we would go to town. My feet were tough as leather then. Now I’m a tender foot and very rarely go outside without shoes on.
    During dog days we were warned of snakes because their eye sight was bad and would be more inclined to strike.
    I’ve never researched that to see if that is actually true or another one of our Appalachian superstitions.

  • Reply
    TMc
    August 30, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    I got a cut on my foot once and my Mother told me to stay out of the dew until it healed or it would get infected, well I listened for a few days until I got bored and went out into the dew, ended up with one of the worst infections I’ve ever had. Kids listen to your Mother.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 30, 2017 at 2:45 pm

    One summer I stepped on something in the river and didn’t know it until I got out. It didn’t hurt when it happened. When I got out somebody said “What did you do to your foot?” When I looked the heel on my right foot was split from side to side and was pouring blood. I liked to passed out. We had to tie it up with tee shirts and I had to hobble about a mile back home. I can still visualize the bloody footprints on a gravel road.
    Mommy had old worn out bed sheets that she had bleached and cut in strips just for such occasions. It took all she had to get me situated. She poured the wound full of Blairs High Powered Red Liniment, which set me on fire, then wrapped my whole foot, ankle and all with her home made bandages. Eventually it quit bleeding and healed up enough to start the Epsom Salts soaks which were a twice a day routine for the rest of the summer. No going back to the river. No walking in the grass when it was wet. No activity that got the bandage dirty or wet was allowed. Speaking of Dog Days and the Doldrums, I was the poster boy that year.
    I have cut myself in the water since then but not nearly to that extent. None of those times either resulted in any pain. I was wondering if I am unique or if other people have experienced underwater injuries without noticing them until they got out.

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    August 30, 2017 at 1:39 pm

    I had several bouts with sores on my legs when I was a youngster, I never wore shoes after the first of May up until the first frost except to church. My feet would be like leather, I could run barefoot down a gravel road and never feel it but if I was out in damp grass or weed I’d often have these sores on my ankles and lower legs. I’ve heard this condition called impetigo which is caused by a Strep or Staph bacteria but this usually appears on the upper parts of the body on younger children. Maybe it was indeed Dew Pizen.

  • Reply
    Larry Proffitt
    August 30, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    I had “Fall Sores” on my arms as a child out in the country where we played outside all summer long barefooted from May 1st till school time after Labor Day . Ointments and Creams for topical infections were compounded back in those days of the late 40’s and early 50’s . One of the best prescription ingredients was mostly Sulfadiazene . Most likely we contracted these topical infections from insect bites that we children scratched as needed to the dismay of our parents . The staphylococcus aureous then just spread on the affected limbs . I can remember having both arms covered with bandages and changed daily.
    Larry Proffitt

  • Reply
    Ken
    August 30, 2017 at 11:23 am

    Tipper,
    I’ve never had dew poisoning and I went barefooted a lot in the summertime.
    Before Hardin’s Trout Pond was built, me and a bunch of us boys dammed up Valley River and made a nice swimming hole. We’d have a fire and cook mollys and red-sided minnows on a stick. Then we’d go for a swim. One time my friend, Monte Kit, was in front of me and we’d jump from the banks into our pond. He landed and stuck a rusty nail in the bottom of his foot. An older friend was with us and he had Monte Kit to turn his head while he jerked the nail out. Then he put a mud patty on and it never gave my friend much trouble. I recon the Good Lord watches over kids cause we did lots of dangerous things. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 30, 2017 at 10:04 am

    We were cautioned about going out in the dew barefooted and bare legged. I can’t recall whether the warnings were restricted to dog days or not. I don’t remember ever having any poisoning either. I guess though that one way or another I was exposed to everything going.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    August 30, 2017 at 9:19 am

    I always heard my grandfather had to work in timber with a Fall sore. Mom said my grandmother would wrap it in white cloths every day. He had this for a long time. Of course we were always told to watch for copperheads, as they were supposed to be blind during “dog days.” Later in life my family tried to avoid surgeries during “dog days” because it was thought it was easy to get infections and not heal. Love everything Appalachian and especially love all of our beliefs unique to the area.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    August 30, 2017 at 9:04 am

    We were absolutely forbidden to walk through the dew if we had an open sore. Dog days kept many children housebound without an argument as we were so afraid of that dreaded time of the year. Mom doctored any scrape, cut, sore or just about anything with sugar and turpentine.

  • Reply
    larry griffith
    August 30, 2017 at 8:22 am

    I went barefoot as a boy and was always warned of dew poison. Don’t know if I ever got it, always had cuts and scratches on my feet and used turpentine to help heal. Don’t remember ever hearing dew cracks in E.KY.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    August 30, 2017 at 8:01 am

    We used to get sores on our legs from being out before the dew dried. Ground itch was confined to our feet we were told it was from playing in the wster after a heavy rain they would mske a plaster out of mustard and chopped onions to put on it.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 30, 2017 at 7:46 am

    I was at my cousins house and cut the bottom of my foot on broken glass in the creek, it was a pretty nasty cut. Then I spent the night with my grandmother. That’s when she wouldn’t let me go outside the next morning because I might catch Dew Poisoning. I was a little kid and didn’t wear shoes outside. I thought it was pretty silly and slipped out when she wasn’t looking. Didn’t catch any Dew Poisoning, guess I was lucky!
    That was the only time I ever heard of Dew Poisoning.

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