Appalachian Medicine

Fall Sores and Dew Poisoning

grassy field with dew

PinnacleCreek left this comment on yesterday’s post about dog days:

“Caught you late, and had to post since you are discussing one of the most mysterious subjects I can remember from childhood. We all loved Indian Summer with the extra chance to get Summer chores done before Winter. Dog days of Summer not so much. We were warned of snakes striking more easily as they were blinded. Also, you did not want to get a wound or it would heal poorly, as more susceptible to dew poisoning. Now I am not sure if I read it in my studies or if it was a leftover from my raising, but I strongly advised all family not to have surgery in those worrisome days we learned to call “dog days.” As a nurse we studied about bacteria and how they favor a warm moist environment. So maybe those old timers were onto something, because the latter part of Summer is hot and sometimes very moist.

Then there were the Fall Sores which I never completely understood. I was told my grandfather got one, and it had to be wrapped daily before he went to work. I never heard the doctors mention fall sores, dog days, nor dew poisoning, and personally felt they should know about all that since most were from Appalachia. I suppose that is something to wonder about another day.”

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This is what the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English has to say about Dew Poisoning:

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.]

A quick look in “Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia” by Anthony Cavender showed this information:

Fall Sores

Also known as “dew posioning” 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 dimples). Since many children went barefoot during the summer and fall, the feet were particularly vulnerable.

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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.

All my life if Granny had a cut or scratch on her hands or arms she bandaged 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.

Here’s some comments shared by Blind Pig readers in the past about Dew Poisoning.

Lula Mae Vanwinkle: 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!

TMC: 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.

Bill Burnett: 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.

Larry Proffitt: 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.

Jim Allen: 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)

Tipper

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    August 15, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    You had to keep an eye on those sores from “dew poisoning”. If a red streak started running from it toward your heart you were in trouble. If it got to your heart it was too late to go to the doctor. There was nothing he could do, you were going to die.
    Another deadly disorder from my youth was a “ring around”. If you got a rash that started on your stomach or your side you’d better watch it too. If it started around you, you better get to the doctor ’cause it went all the way around and came back to where it started you were doomed.

  • Reply
    Annie R.
    August 15, 2019 at 1:57 pm

    As a child, I only had to been down wind of poison ivy, and sure enough I’d be blistered & itchy within a day. But I’d often risk gettin dew poison at sunset just so i could play hide n seek .

    Might I add? I noticed in the 1913 Kephart, Our Sthn High. It mentioned, “I lay on the floor on a pallet.”
    You don’t hear that word “pallet” any more.
    Now days when company shows up, everyone wants their own room.
    My cousins and I still laugh about how grandma would throw 4 quilts our the floor and us 6 cousins from 3 differs states would pill on. They be yelled at many times to,
    ” Settle down in there ! GO TO SLEEP!”

  • Reply
    Paula Rhodarmer
    August 15, 2019 at 11:35 am

    I don’t remember my parents talking about Fall sores, though they might have and I wasn’t listening. I do remember their fear of blood poisoning, though. Each time one of us children got a wound or sore of any kind, we watched carefully for the dreaded red streak to start from the wound. I don’t think any of us ever got that type of infection, but we heard plenty about it and we were deathly afraid of it.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    August 15, 2019 at 9:38 am

    Miss Cindy’s purple medicine must be Gentian Violet used for thrush and other problems. Still available if ask pharmacist, and I used for my Mom rather than expose her to meds with strong side effects.

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    August 15, 2019 at 9:31 am

    There are lots of dangers and healing in Mother Earth. After many years of taking the same old courses or CEUs to renew my license, I decided it was more interesting to branch out into the courses on alternative medicines. Not only did I learn a lot of helpful information, but It actually became fascinating to explore other ideas. I thought there just had to be something better than popping a little pill somebody had ordered in Latin. As I studied many of these natural healings seemed familiar from my growing up years. I had discarded many old books where the studies changed so fast the book became outdated. Not so with the books on healing herbs or alternative methods of healing. Many of these were studied and tried through trial and error by our ancestors, and handed down to us by our parents.
    How interesting to find Sassafras to be a natural blood thinner, and so many other natural healers right there in our own back yard. My latest discovery is how fast tonic water can stop those annoying leg cramps. because it contains a very small amount of a detrimental substance called Quinine. Quinine was once used for that purpose, but it was taken off the market for that use by the FDA. It is still used for Malaria. I wonder if the FDA further studied it in small amounts.
    Our Microbiology teacher was an Appalachian, and it was obvious by her teaching methods. For one study she brought her own pond water for us to study. That water was full of all kinds of microbes. I wish I had asked different questions back then about fall sores, dog days, and what kind of bacteria lurks out there at certain times of year. I can’t do a do over, but with the Blind Pig I can sure do some heavy pondering every morning with my coffee as my natural stimulant that has “aminophylline like qualities.”

  • Reply
    aw griff
    August 15, 2019 at 9:18 am

    Both Parents and Grandparents warned us of dew poisoning and the way I remember it was don’t let the dew come in contact with any cut or scratch or it would get infected.
    Maybe someone can help out with this one. It’s a vague memory of killing trees. If a tree was damaged in any way during this time of year it would die. Would that have been during dog days? I don’t know if this is true or not, but between the deer and the heat, my young pie cherry is dead.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    August 15, 2019 at 8:44 am

    About this time last year, I got a sore on my ankle that would not heal. I thought it was due to dog days and I didn’t really have time to go to the doctor with a newly vacated rental house and acres and acres to mow. As time went on, I did see my doctor…and two dermatologist, a surgeon, foot and ankle doctor, ER doctor and a wound care specialist many times. I had 15-16 debridements, took enough antibiotics to cause thrush and was told I could possibly lose my leg. The moral of the story is: never assume dog days or dew causes those sores that won’t heal. It could be a spider bite like mine!
    I finally got released from the wound care center last month! It’s still painful at times and the big ugly ‘tattoo’ will always be there, but I am truly blessed and thank God every day for my recovery.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    August 15, 2019 at 8:20 am

    My Dad often warned us kids about dew poisoning but I was never very clear on the what and how. One thing about sores or cuts on the lower legs or feet, grass blades contacted just right can cur like a knife. And the growth habit of grass holds rain water or dew and funnels it down the stem to the ground. And heavy dews are especially common as summer merges into fall and nightime temperatures fall to the dew point.

    I suspect the whole idea of ‘dew poioning’ is one of those things denied as being real these days but is anyway. And since people being out and about barefoot in dew-soaked vegetation is almost entirely a thing of the past, it will probably never be explained.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    August 15, 2019 at 7:32 am

    Sanford, I remember the old time purple medicine but not sure what the name was…was it argerol? When I was a child we always had turpentine in the house used to kill bacteria in cuts and scrapes. As an adult I went to the drugstore to buy some turpentine and they wouldn’t sell it to me, even when I told then I’d used it all my life!
    When I was around 6 I got a nasty glass cut on the bottom of my foot and my grandmother would not let me out of the house in the morning till the grass was dry. She said I would get dew poisoning in the cut. I didn’t believe it because I always went out barefoot.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    August 15, 2019 at 7:17 am

    We called it ground itch and I got it every summer. We were told it was caused by playing in muddy puddles. My momma made a poltice of chopped onions snd dry mustsrd. The itch stopped.

  • Reply
    Sanford McKinney Jr
    August 15, 2019 at 6:26 am

    I can remember some of the children coming to school with some kind of “purple” medication, mainly on their legs, which was applied for “fall sores.” I do not remember any of us seven children having “fall sores’, but we worked and played outside all seasons of the year. I do remember Mom and Dad boiling some kind of tree bark and having each of us drink a measured amount to prevent “fall sores.” This very well could explain us not having the problem?

    • Reply
      aw griff
      August 15, 2019 at 9:26 am

      Sanford. Very interesting. I hope at some point you can remember what kind of tree bark it was and let us know.

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