Winter means a break from insect related skin issues, but it has its own set of unique problems.
The cold, dry air in winter leads to a major cause of delayed healing, dehydration of exposed tissue. A moist environment is important for cells to migrate across the wound and for white cells to do their work cleaning up the wound. Suturing wounds that warrant it, and keeping other wounds covered with a protective salve, will guard against dehydration.
Choose a topical treatment which will prevent the wound from drying
The cold itself can also be a problem because blood flow is decreased to the skin in cold weather. Inflammation helps counteract it in the early stages of healing but once that calms down, in 3 to 5 days, blood flow is not as good as in warmer weather. This slows healing by inhibiting cell migration and can also mean the difference between death or survival of areas of skin that have a damaged blood supply from the injury.
Because of the detrimental effects of cold, dry weather, wounds need more protection. Even small skin breaks in areas with a lot of movement, like the heels and pasterns, can quickly become painfully deep cracks. Keep an eye out for wounds on your small animals too and regularly check their paws for cracking.
Good choices for holding in moisture on wounds are ointments and salves without a water base. Look for petrolatum, beeswax and oils. Help with temporary irritation and discomfort comes from ingredients like Arnica, Chamomile, Comfrey, Calendula, Witch Hazel, Plantain, White Willow Bark, Golden Seal and Vitamin E. Natural ingredients with antiseptic advantages include Tea Tree Oil, Oregon Grape, Echinacea, Gentian, Sodium Copper Chlorophyllin and all essential oils. Protect delicate new skin with the antioxidant benefits of Chaparral, Burdock and St. John’s Wort.
For wounds on the lower legs, apply a generous amount of salve after cleaning gently with warm water then cover with several layers of gauze (never use cotton on open wounds) and a standing leg wrap over that. To avoid having your gauze slide down inside the wrap, use a dab of your wound dressing to hold the gauze layers together and also to hold it where you want it inside your leg cotton wrap, then apply the wrap as usual. Check and rebandage once a day for the first few days, or until drainage has stopped.
Also be vigilant for signs of the #1 cold weather skin infection, Dermatophilus congolensis, aka “rain rot”. This organism thrives inside a dense winter coat, especially if the horse gets wet. It is most likely to attack immunocompromised individuals, like seniors, but no horse is safe.
Look for areas where the hair seems to be standing on end in little tufts. Also use your bare fingers or very thin gloves (like ski glove liners) to feel for tiny scabs. The scabs are easier to remove early in the infection. To support skin recovery, remove as many scabs as you can. Use a tea tree based spray to saturate the area, or a tea tree salve rubbed in well to make sure you get down to skin level.
Tip: For ease of use and your horse’s comfort, do not store wound products in the cold – including in tack trunks. Keep them in a heated room and when working on your horse place them inside your clothes as close to your body as possible until you are ready to use them.
Winter weather is no friend to skin. Fight compromised healing by preventing tissue dehydration with oil/wax based salves and ointments and taking advantage of many helpful actions of herbal ingredients.
Eleanor Kellon, VMD