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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Camp Itch

By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

"Camp Itch" was a painful skin disease, involving itching, lesions, and inflammation, suffered by soldiers both North and South during the Civil War. Doctors debated the cause of the itch. Certainly some cases were really scabies, a very contagious skin disease caused by mites and quickly spread by shared blankets as well as in crowded conditions. Some doctors, however, stated that camp itch was not scabies as no "animaliculae" were present. Whether scabies or not, the itch resulted from the poor hygiene of troops who bathed infrequently, suffered numerous scratches and bites, and were generally very dirty. Then, when afflicted, the men scratched, making the problem worse. The itch became so severe in some cases that 31,947 Union troops and quite a number of Confederates had to be hospitalized for treatment of the infections that followed.

The standard remedies were evidently sulphur and arsenic taken internally, plus external alkaline baths. Some doctors also prescribed a wash of sulphur and lime. Because many ingredients were difficult to get in the South, Confederate doctors sought to develop treatments using indigenous plants, some of which were tested on patients at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Several doctors reported their treatments in the Confederate States Medical and Surgical Journal.

Surgeon John H. Claiborne, in charge of the hospitals in Petersburg, Virginia, reported success in mild cases of camp itch by having the patient change clothes frequently and bathe in a decoction (prepared by boiling) of poke root once or twice daily, followed by washing with soap and water. This regimen generally produced a cure in a week to ten days. Patients with more serious cases found the poke baths too irritating. For them, Claiborne recommended washing with a decoction of broom-straw root or slippery elm, three or four times per day, until the soldier was able to take the poke root baths. Claiborne also recommended a diet of vegetables and grains, as well as a light laxative for the patient. If mercury and arsenic were available, he would give the usual doses in addition to his other treatments.

FROM: The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine

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