I’ve often said that, in a major disaster, we may be thrown back to a bygone era where modern medicine is not an option. Indeed, we can expect civil war-era statistics with regards to major abdominal and chest trauma outcomes, but we will still be ahead of our ancestors even if we’re thrown off the grid. That’s because of modern knowledge of antisepsic techniques.
The word antiseptic comes from the greek words anti (against) and septikos (putrid or rotten). Antiseptics are substances with antimicrobial properties applied to living tissue to reduce the possibility of infection. Antiseptics, it should be noted, are not antibiotics. Antibiotics are meant to destroy bacteria within the body. Antiseptics are also different from disinfectants, which destroy germs found on non-living objects. All of these are important supplies for the survival medic.
We have a number of videos on this website that discuss antibiotics and what your options are in a survival scenario. If you haven’t been here before, use the search engine and you’ll find there are more than you think. We haven’t, however, talked a lot about antiseptics. Let’s discuss the most popular types on the market that might be candidates for your survival medical kit.
Iodophors: Iodophors like Betadine contain iodine, a substance that can also be used to purify water, but is combined with a solubilizing agent, povidone, which makes it, unlike pure iodine, relatively nonirritating and nontoxic to living tissue. Iodophors work against a broad array of microorganisms and don’t need to be heavily diluted. I will admit that I do dilute my Betadine if I use it on open wounds for regular dressing changes. Iodophors are effective in killing microbes within just a few minutes.
Chlorhexidine Gluconate: This substance, perhaps better known by its brand name “Hibiclens”, is helpful against many types of germs, although it’s not very effective against fungal infections. It’s relatively long-lasting, however, compared to some other antiseptics. For this reason, Hibiclens is popular as a way to prepare areas for surgery and for healthcare providers to scrub their hands before patient encounters.
Alcohol: Ethyl Alcohol (also called ethanol) is another tried and true antiseptic product. It, along with isopropyl alcohol, kills many different types of microbes and is fact acting and inexpensive. The problem is that alcohol has a drying effect on skin, the oral cavity, and vagina. It has a tendency to inhibit the development of new cells, so use it for an initial wound cleaning but not for regular care.
Benzalkonium Chloride: BZK is a mild antiseptic and is easily tolerated by most people. One of the most popular first aid wipes or sprays, some say that it has a special effect against the rabies virus, but there’s little hard data supporting this claim.
Hydrogen Peroxide: Hydrogen peroxide is used to clean wounds and reacts with blood to form an impressive foam. This is because blood and most cells contain an enzyme called catalase. Catalase reacts with hydrogen peroxide, converting it into oxygen and water. This effect makes it popular for household first aid in common mishaps like abrasions, but not a great candidate for regular dressing changes due to its drying effect on new cells. It can be used as a mouth rinse in the oral cavity, however, making it a candidate for a survival dental kit.
PCMX (Parachlorometaxylenol or chloro-xylenol for short): Available in more brand names than you can count, this substance is effective against most germs. It’s less potent, though, than chlorhexidine and iodophors, although the antiseptic effect lasts longer. PCMX can be irritating, so don’t use it on mucous membranes like the oral cavity and vagina.
Bleach: Bleach can be found as either a sodium hypochlorite (Clorox) solution or can be improvised with calcium hypochlorite granules, also known as “Pool Shock”. Used more as a disinfectant than an antiseptic, bleach in very dilute solutions (0.5% or less) can make Dakin’s solution, a time-honored method to clean wounds. Be sure to watch our recent two-part video on this website that shows you how to make it easily and affordably.
I’m sure you know of more products that can serve as antiseptics for your survival sick room. Armed with these items, your chances of succeeding when everything else fails, at least as a medic, go up exponentially. Be sure to get the supplies and knowledge that will save lives in times of trouble.