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A reminder from an African war comrade: emergency hygiene


In all our talk about the current food crisis and preparing for hard times, I've neglected to mention one aspect that's particularly important:  personal and household hygiene.  An old buddy from Africa reminded me about that during an e-mail exchange today.  It's important enough a topic that I figured I'd best address it right away.  If things go to hell in a handbasket, and electricity supply becomes intermittent, or you have to "bug out" to a different location, hygiene becomes supremely important.

More diseases are associated with dirt, and being dirty, than just about any other cause.  Tetanus, blood poisoning in its various flavors, skin conditions such as athletes foot, jock itch and the like . . . they're all a lot easier to catch when we're not clean.  In particular, if dirt on our skin enters the bloodstream when we cut ourselves by accident, that can make things many times worse than they need to be.  Personal hygiene not only makes us less repugnant to live with, it can actually be a life-saver.

Therefore, as a first step, make a list of everyone in your family's preferred brands, flavors, scents, etc. of personal hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and what have you).  Stock them deep.  If the variety is too wide, get tough with your family and tell them you're only going to stock one common brand, and they get to vote on which one it'll be.  They'll complain, but this is for emergency use, and having anything is better than having nothing.  I'd say stock enough for at least six months for everybody, and a year's supply if possible.  Add extra towels and facecloths for everyone.

Of particular importance is feminine hygiene.  Guys, you've got no idea what a can of worms this can be!  Tampons vs. napkins;  winged versus non-winged;  colors, thickness, scents (!!!) . . . My strong advice is to let your ladies buy whatever they want, just so long as they get at least six months' worth, preferably enough for a year.  Put it away safely, and let them use it as needed - and make sure to re-stock it if it drops below six months' worth.  You don't - I repeat, you DO NOT - want to have to live with ladies whose supplies have run out, and whose monthly dreadfuls have arrived.  That's happened to me twice in different parts of Africa.  "Crabby" doesn't begin to cover it.  Further deponent sayeth naught!  (Except that it might help to keep your neighborhood peaceful and quiet if you set aside a stash of another year's worth of the stuff, to hand out to borrowing neighbors.  Believe me, they'll be grateful!)

Oh, guys - one VERY important point.  Store sanitary napkins and/or tampons in a cool, dry place.  DO NOT store them anywhere they can get very hot or very cold.  If you do, after a year or so, the paper of which they're made will harden up and become scratchy and itchy.  If they're forced to use them like that, so will the ladies in your life!  Take extra care of feminine hygiene items, for your own sake.

When it comes to the kitchen, food poisoning is an ever-present danger.  It's probably killed more human beings over the past few millennia than even disease epidemics.  To avoid it, you'll need to take great care to clean and sanitize pots, pans, crockery, cutlery and so on.  Using disposable plates, bowls and cups can be very useful, saving water and time;  but over an extended period, supplies of them will probably run out, forcing you to use washables.  Stock enough dish soap for several months at least - again, I prefer a year's supply - plus cleaning cloths, kitchen sponges, brushes, etc. - whatever you normally use.  I also recommend buying a couple of bus boxes, the kind they use in restaurants to gather up dirty dishes from tables.  They're big enough to make handy portable sinks for washing up, one for soapy water and one for fresh water for rinsing;  and they use less water than a conventional kitchen sink, which might be an important factor.  Add a couple of dish drying racks and some kitchen towels, and you're set.

Now for the serious bit.  If you suffer a through-the-skin wound, or have any sort of fungal infection, you're going to need to keep the area not only clean, but sanitized.  That's particularly important if there are any open wounds involved.  It goes double for anybody's hands that will help treat your injuries or infections, as they can carry infection on their skin.  For that reason, I regard it as particularly important to have antiseptic and antimicrobial soap on hand - and not just in small quantities.  If you have to treat a fungal infection such as jock itch, you may need to use it a couple of times a week for several months.  That means keeping a decent supply on hand.

The #1 choice, that you'll find in hospitals all over America, is Hibiclens.  I've got a gallon of it stashed away.  It's expensive, but it's what many doctors and nurses rely on every day.  That speaks volumes, right there.  However, Hibiclens warns very strongly against using it around the eyes or mucous membranes, or for repeated general washing.  I presume that's because its ingredients are strong enough to be potentially harmful if absorbed.  I tend to keep it back for wound care and medically indicated use.

A cheaper alternative, also used in many hospitals, and without the dire warnings about over-use or mucous membranes, is Opti-Scrub.  I've got a gallon of this stuff, too, for use in general washing where antimicrobial properties are still needed, such as fungal infections.

There are a number of other antimicrobial soaps available, but I've used both Hibiclens and Opti-Scrub and can therefore vouch for their effectiveness.  I haven't used any of the others, so I can't recommend them out of personal experience.  Feel free to shop around and try them yourself.  No matter which you choose, I'd also lay in a few smaller squeeze bottles, and dispense it into them for ease of use.

As for applying such soaps, you can use gauze swabs, facecloths, or anything else that comes to hand.  Just remember not to put them back into general use without washing them very thoroughly to remove, not just the medicated soap, but also any infection they may be carrying.  It's worth having an oversupply of such cloths, just in case.  The same goes for things like microfiber cleaning cloths and towels.  They're amazingly useful in many situations, and make great trading material for those who didn't stock them until it was too late.  (Ask those who've done long wilderness expeditions in Africa or South America about how desperate one can get for something one really, really needs or wants, and how much one's willing to offer in trade to get it.  Conventional economics go out of the window in such situations.  At one time in central Africa, I got an AK-47, four loaded magazines and two hand grenades in exchange for a six-pack of cold beer from the ice-box and a bottle of what was alleged to be Scotch whisky, but which I doubt had ever been within a thousand miles of the Highlands.  The weapons proved to be much more useful over the rest of the trip than the liquor would have been!)

Finally, let's look at keeping our clothes clean.  If you have access to a working washing machine, that's great:  but in hard times, the power may be unreliable, or you may have to move.  In that case, plan ahead and have what you need already in store.

I have two five-gallon buckets fitted with Gamma Seal screw-on lids, with a hole bored through the middle of each lid.  I've inserted a laundry agitator (similar to this example) through each hole.  I now have makeshift washing machines, each of which can handle a pair of jeans, or a couple of shirts or sets of underwear.  I can set them up anywhere, anytime, provided I have water and some low-foaming laundry detergent.  I have a pack of unscented powder laundry detergent for use on the road, and regular liquid detergent for use at home.  (I highly recommend unscented detergents for use "on the go", as you never know when you might meet someone with asthma who might be affected by strong scents;  and besides, you might not want others to be able to smell you before they see you, or you see them!)

Anyway, there are some thoughts for you as you make your preparations for hard times ahead.  I hope they help.


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