Take a very close look at that ugly infected finger…my finger… in the above photo. Nasty right? Well, that thing ended up getting worse before it got better and at one point, I had red veins going up my arm and there was concern that I could lose the digit, my arm…or even my life! The crazy thing is this whole situation started as a tiny, seemingly innocuous line cut and then things went haywire.
My spooky run-in with a serious infection far from medical attention has inspired me to share what I learned from the experience. Hopefully, you can avoid going down the same path with some simple preventative steps.
So, let me back up here. Last summer, I was guiding on Alaska’s Togiak River, where the coho fishing was nothing short of sublime. Of course, when you’re dealing with dozens and dozens of fish per day, line burns from grabbing leaders and unhooking salmon beside the boat are part of the game. Trust me, your fingers also suffer plenty of nicks from fish teeth, gill rakers and hook points too.
It was the same deal over on the nearby Nushagak River, where I previously guided for seven seasons: Dealing with tons of kings, your hands and, especially, fingers get pretty beat up.
Line burns are the worst. They’re like paper cuts on steroids and when you have a bunch of them on your fingers, they can make tying knots and other basic fishing tasks difficult. So, for eons, I’ve been dousing my cuts with hydrogen peroxide and then covering them with liquid bandage.
That program has worked for decades and I have never once had a cut that got infected. In fact, I have joked many times over the years that I’m a blood brother with the salmon, often inadvertently mixing their blood with mine — and then rinsing in river water.
Well, back in Togiak, my system failed me. Over the course of a couple days, a nearly microscopic line cut turned into that grotesquely swollen (and extremely painful) finger in the photo. The next day, it was purple and a day later, I had red lines going up my arm — a sign of very dangerous blood poisoning.
The incident forced me home early and cost me a week of work — but luckily that was all it cost me. Left unchecked, an infection like that can result in lost limbs or even death.
I was put on a daily dose close to 4,000 mg worth of antibiotics and had three different varieties pumping through me for 10 days. We caught it in time and the drugs did their thing but it was a rugged week and I felt like crud with all that stuff inside me — but I survived.
So, I learned a few things from all of this and will share them with you here.
First off, don’t ever use that paint-on liquid bandage stuff! What ended up happening was I sealed some bacteria inside my hand when I used it. Apparently, I didn’t get all the “bad guys” out with the peroxide, and by painting over the cut, there was no way for my body to flush it out. A salmon stream has tons of bacteria in it – from rotting fish carcasses, animal poop and the like – and when you don’t give it a way to get out of your system, bad things can happen fast!
And speaking of hydrogen peroxide, the nurse who worked on me told me to stop using it as a wound flush. Apparently, that burn you feel when you pour it on a cut – which I always thought was the telltale sign that it was working — is actually the peroxide eating your tissue! No bueno!
When you do get a minor fishing cut, the best thing to do is soak it in a bowl or cup of warm Epsom salt water. The bacteria can’t live in the salt and the warm water helps send white blood cells to the injury and help it heal. The warmth also localizes the infection.
After a soaking, apply some antiseptic cream to the cut and cover it with a loose bandage.
If you develop an infection, pay close attention to it and watch for red streaks. If you see streaks, the infection growing or you feel sick and run a fever of about 100.5, it’s time to get to a doctor immediately!
Infections are no joke and it was a real eye opener for me to watch a seemingly innocuous little cut progress rapidly to a potential life-threatening situation.
To help reduce the risk of line burns and small cuts, try wearing rubber (nitrile) gloves. When fishing in the heat, however, that’s not an option. So when going “commando” with bare hands, you can also try covering your potential hot spots with tape or, better yet, go with Fishermen’s Stretch Wrap (available at Fishermen’s Marine and Outdoor).