Cactus Spines and How to Remove Them
Cactus Spines Overview
Hiking in the Southwest has an enemy that you don’t see in other areas, a cactus with those spiny needles that pack a prickly punch.
I love cacti and am always found taking photos of them on the trail, especially baby barrel cactus.
But, as “cute” and “pretty” as they are, a misstep or a brush against one can cause a bit of pain. Or a lot of pain that I witnessed in Sedona when a woman fell into an area containing a lot of cacti that embedded their “needles” all over her body. There were four of us working with tweezers trying to help her remove them.
There are two types of “thorns” or “needles” of a cactus, they are known as spines and glochids.
The spines are the large “needles” that you see sticking out of a cactus that are easy to view with the eye from a few feet away.
These are the “good” ones, meaning they are the easiest to remove. Sometimes you don’t need to break out your cactus first aid kit because you can remove the spines by hand.
If you choose to remove a spine by hand BE VERY CAREFUL that you do not push it in and make it harder to remove OR cause the spine to break, which will make it harder to remove.
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Those hair-like needles that you see when you are closer to a cactus are called glochids. These are the ones that may enter multiples at a time and are the hardest to get out because 1) they are so fine, 2) they may be really hard to see, and 3) these fine “needles” normally have a barb, which makes them difficult to remove.
DO NOT try to remove glochids by hand! These should be removed by using tweezers or a combination of tweezers and a “glue patch”
How Do You Treat Cactus Wounds
Once you have removed all the spines or glochids, you should wash out the wound and apply an antibiotic ointment. If you have a bandage or gauze and tape, try to cover the areas, especially if out in a “dirty” area.
Using your best judgment for medications, if your wound(s) are itching or in pain, consider using a topical treatment and/or an over the counter option such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
What Happens if You Leave a Cactus Needle In
Eventually, what goes in must come out. Unfortunately, it can be a painful process if that little pimple forms at the wound area. Normally that is a sign that it has made its way to the top of the skin and you should be able to remove it by draining the pimple and carefully pushing it out with your fingers.
Are Cactus Needles Dangerous
The spines found on a cactus are not poisonous for humans or animals but there is a chance that if left in or not properly cared for you can develop an infection in the wound area.
There is a chance that there could be something on the spine, such as bacteria, that may also cause an infection.
How to Remove Cactus Spines
Image from REI
The best way to remove the spines and glochids that you cannot remove by hand is to break out a set of needle-nose tweezers and remove as many as possible. If you still have some left, apply Elmer’s Glue over the area and cover with gauze allowing the glue to dry, which takes about 30 minutes.
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Cactus First Aid Kit Items
Once all those skin intruders have been removed (or as many as you can), add some antibiotic ointment before you cover the area with a bandage.
I carry a tube with me as part of my first aid kit as you never know when someone will have a reaction from something you encounter on the trail.
Duct tape is a very versatile item to keep in your backpack because it has so many uses such as repairing ripped pants, a temporary fix to broken gear, and more. I keep a small amount taped around my hiking poles and a small roll in my backpack.
Forcep Tweezer With Pointed Tips
Having tweezers with pointed tips are more helpful than the slant tweezers when you need the precision of removing spines and glochids.
You can find them in the beauty section of your favorite retail store, or you can buy online.
I recommend finding the “combo” kit that includes pointed tip tweezers and a magnifier.
Lighter or Matches to “Disinfect” the Items
A small lighter is recommended to always have on hand to have in case of an emergency in case you need to build a fire or if you need to “disinfect” the items you will use to remove the spines.
Learn more about what items you should carry in case of an emergency, 10 Essentials for the Southwest Hiker.
Small lightweight magnifiers are easy to find but I recommend finding the “combo” kit that includes pointed tip tweezers and a magnifier.
Used in a combination with gauze, this is one of the top recommended ways to remove cactus spines and glochids.
The small bottles are very hard to find and I carry a 4-ounce bottle with me as the only place I found to buy is through Amazon and it’s more than what I need. View the 1.25 ounce of Elmer’s Glue-All.
I haven’t tried other varieties other than Elmer’s Glue-All, the “all-purpose” version, not the washable version for kids.
This is a hard one on the trail as we normally don’t carry soap and water to keep our hands clean.
We will use water from our hydration bladders to rinse the area to remove any debris.
While it’s hard to keep a Band-Aid on when hiking, it is recommended that you try to cover to keep debris and possible bacteria from entering the wound.
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Disinfecting Items With Fire
The easiest way to “disinfect” your “instruments” is to heat with a lighter until the metal turns red. Once it turns red, allow it to cool and then start the process of removing the intruder(s).
If you don’t have a lighter, check your first aid kit to see if you have alcohol wipes.
If you are out hiking, it’s hard to clean the area with soap and water.
What we normally do use water to rinse the area to remove any debris before starting the removal process.
Antibiotics and Antihistamines
Most say to keep antibiotics in your cactus first aid kit but we go a step further and add an over the counter antihistamine to counteract any reaction you may have from the painful skin intruder.
Bandage the Area
Band-aids are the worst to keep on while hiking, especially if it’s hot. But, it is recommended that you cover the area if possible.