Column: My mom’s first aid cabinet

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Iodine, merthiolate or mercurochrome? When you cut your finger or skinned your knee as a kid, which of these did your mom dab onto the wound?

We had all three in our medicine cabinet, and I voted 100 percent of the time for mercurochrome. Why? Because it alone didn’t sting. Mom, on the other hand, wasn’t convinced that something that didn’t hurt was as effective as something that did.

She would drag out the iodine, and I would scream bloody murder. That stuff stung, and it stung for hours, if not days. Finally, in response to my best whining, she would relent and open the merthiolate. It stung, too, but for less time and less intensely.

“Just blow on it,” she would croon. “It won’t sting for long.” She was right. After a few minutes the pain subsided, and I was happily assured of a rapid return to good health.

Iodine is a naturally occurring element in seaweed, and it has been extracted for use as an antiseptic since the 1800s. Walk along the beach after high tide has left a wake of seaweed, and that stench is iodine.

Actually, those nasty little bottles of the stuff are tinctures, which means the iodine is diluted with alcohol. It’s likely the stuff that stings is actually the alcohol.

Merthiolate is likewise a tincture combining thimerosal and sodium into an iridescent liquid that every kid in my neighborhood displayed with fluorescent pride every time he or she crashed his bike or collided with the sidewalk while roller skating.

Mercurochrome is the name for merbromin and is a combination of mercury and sodium. The stuff dissolves in water instead of alcohol, which probably explains why it didn’t sting on cuts and scrapes.

Neither mercurochrome nor merthiolate are manufactured anymore, probably because they contain mercury, which is the stuff they once used to make felt hats, and which made the hat makers crazy.

Iodine is still readily available on drug store shelves, although most child owies are treated these days with more benign compounds like bacatracin and hydrocortisone ointments.

By the way, an ointment is defined as a smooth, oily preparation for the skin. A balm is a fragrant ointment, and a tonic is a medicine taken for a feeling of well-being.

A potion, on the other hand, is a liquid with either healing or poisonous properties. Now, that’s where I would place iodine.


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