Five herbs to have in an activist first aid kit

We’re in the middle of the Autumn Rebellion, the global actions of Extinction Rebellion focused on bringing acute awareness and immediate action to solving the human-caused climate crisis. It’s a time for practical things, even in blogging.

So, here is my quick guide to the most essential herbs—not just for first aid kits, but—specifically for activist first aid kits. (There are some unique issues to take into account.)

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

There are plenty of herbs that are helpful in first aid, but in modern reality, first aid kits have to be portable and we often need them in cities, on roads or in places where a lot of fresh herbs aren’t available. Furthermore, activists need first aid kits that address the basic needs of humans in stressful and physically risky environments, as well as the means to safeguard long-term health and to counteract possible chemical attacks by security forces.

While I may have a larger supply of herbs at a tent or first-aid station at a major action, the question of which herbs to put into a light field kit is of crucial importance. Most of the time, for field kits we’re talking tincture and salve, but there is one exception to that rule.

Here are my five top herbs to keep in a first aid kit:

  1. Lemon balm: For herpes (as a salve), strep throat, calming, emotional support and as a sleep aid in uncomfortable conditions (as a tincture). While not specifically a disinfectant herb lemon balm salve has been shown to be as effective as Acyclovir in fighting off cold sores and it is also “specifically active” against the streptococcal bacteria responsible for most bacterial throat infections.

  2. Yarrow tincture: For cramps, sore muscles, inflammation, swelling, wound disinfection and to slow bleeding. Often referred to as nature’s Ibuprofen for its dramatic anti-inflammatory properties. It also combines well with plantain in a general healing salve for scrapes.

  3. Mullein tincture, glycerate or syrup: For stomach problems and breathing troubles. Mullein helps an acute cough right away and heals damaged lungs. This is the most obvious difference for activist kits. Mullein is the best known herb for recovery from pepper spray or tear gas attacks.

  4. Echinacea tincture: A good immune support and prevention at the first sign of sickness. I add echinacea to general wellness and boosting drafts for activists. If taken only at times of extraordinary stress, it’s immune support and energy enhancing effects are notable.

  5. Ginger syrup, candied ginger and also thin slices of fresh root: Fights nausea and calms the stomach, warms the extremities and aids breathing. This is the one herb you can literally hand out like candy. On a autumn blockade with a cold mist coming down, distributing thin slices of fresh or candied ginger root can both warm and sooth activists much as alcohol might without the undesirable effects that make alcohol unwelcome at most actions.

There are plenty of other things that might be useful, but this is what I would take if limited to five herbs, partly because of the climate I live in and what grows here locally, also because of what I have found most helpful for the people around me.

St. John’s Wart and calendula would be good alternates for echinacea and yarrow but some people react badly to St. John’s wart and while it can help with some viral infections, it makes people oversensitive to sunlight. Calendula is helpful for most skin problems and fights bacterial and fungal infections, but it doesn’t have the uses yarrow has in slowing bleeding or soothing inflammation.

Thyme is a good alternative to mullein for breathing problems and it has its own digestive uses but in a pinch I’d choose mullein simply because I find that it’s affects are more short-term and short-term relief is what I want in a first aid kit.


  • While lemon balm is very handy for preventing the flare up of a minor sore throat and usually can handle the very beginnings of a bacterial infection, strep throat is a serious condition that requires professional medical attention and has historically (before antibiotics) led to many deaths. Especially in stressful, cold and wet conditions out in the elements, be aware of the dangers of strep infection. Particularly in the case of throat and gland swelling, advise patients to get indoors and seek out medical attention immediately.

  • Yarrow is related to ragweed and people with ragweed allergies may react poorly to it. Also, while yarrow is easier on the kidneys than Ibuprofen, it shouldn’t be used in high “pain-killer doses” (about 1 tsp of tincture every 3 hours for an adult) for more than a few days running.

  • Ginger will calm some stomach problems but will not do much for stomach flu, food poisoning or other infection. If stomach pain or nausea increases and results in repeated vomiting, it is time to get off the front line and seek medical attention.

  • Mullein tincture may help acute breathing problems caused by chemical agents used for “crowd control” but if it does not help and breathing problems continue, seek out professional medical help. It is also ineffective in the other major problem with these chemical weapons, which is eye and skin irritation. The key thing to remember is that these chemicals are acidic and that is the cause of the adverse reactions. Neutralize the acidity with a liquids with a base ph. Water mixed 1 to 1 with antacid solution is helpful. A wash of soy milk has also been known to prevent acid burns.

The balance: Herbs versus modern, western medicine in field first aid

I lay out the things once more - gauze, tape, band aids, iodine, scissors, a triangle scarf, something for burns, something to ease breathing, something to calm rattled nerves, something to ease pain, a healing salve...

How many times have I put together a first aid kit? I've lost track even of the types of kits I've put together.

It probably started when I was a kid and I viewed toothpaste, duct tape and a pocket knife as "first aid." The toothpaste was for tree resin removal and cooling of insect bites, not for teeth.

Then as a young adult I packed a first aid kit in my big trek pack for trips to Ecuador, Kazakhstan, Nepal or Kosovo.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

In those days, I got prescription antibiotics and pain killers for emergencies. I never used them, except once the antibiotics in some remote Mexican mountains.

But I did bandage a lot of cuts, disinfect many wounds, wash dirt out of scrapes and sooth a lot of distress in my time.

Some will sneer. A lot of things were beyond my skills and my kit. But the woman with infected cuts on her hands in rural Bangladesh, who had never seen a doctor, cried and hugged me when I cleaned and bandaged her wounds. Even if that were the only time, it would have been worth it.

I also doctored myself plenty. Once in the Amazon, I cut my foot on a steel grate and it bled so profusely that my local friends took me to the local hospital, which turned out to be a filthy, concrete shed, crowded with infectious disease. I opted for my own kit and bandaged it myself. I managed not to get that cut infected either, no small thing in the rain forest.

I've packed a kit for groups of kids and for family camping trips as well. This time, I'm packing it for another sort of purpose--climate crisis protests.

That mostly means that for the first time I include a large bottle of antacid. I'm told that diluted half and half with water it makes a decent anti-tear-gas eye wash. There are other things I wish I had, like an inhaler, a ventilator, instant ice packs and burn dressings. But I'll make do. Hopefully I won't need any of it.

While updating my research for this kit, I ran across the usual arguments of course. There are the staunch proponents of alternative and herbal medicine, who wouldn't have antibiotics even if they could get them. And there are the western medicine mafia, who don't care if lemon balm salve beats out Acyclovir in clinical trials because "imprecise dosage."

Never mind the fact that precise dosage isn't that important with lemon balm, given that the effective dose is relatively low and the harmful dose is unattainably high.

I don't fit neatly into either camp.

Antibiotics are not the work of the devil. Quite the opposite. They have saved countless lives from miserable, horrifying death, including my own most likely.

But the antibiotic era is still waning. Resistant bacteria are far too common now. Last year, I fought off a flesh-eating MRSA infection that didn't respond to antibiotics. And you bet I'm grateful for the oregano essential oil that finally kicked it.

Ideology ties our hands and causes harm in healing as in any other area.

How do you decide then? The main rule of thumb is to use what works. There are areas where modern, western medicine still does a better job than herbs and there are things where herbs are a better bet.

Western medicine:

  • Surgery

  • Antibiotics

  • Massive bodily trauma

  • Bleeding wounds

  • Organ failure

  • Bacterial infections


  • Scrapes, bruises and burns

  • Allergies

  • Systemic and chronic disease

  • Psychological distress

  • Viral and fungal infections

  • Lung and bronchial difficulties

Automatic rejection of either is nothing but stubborn ignorance that gets in the way of healing.

So, what goes into this year's first aid kit? Here's a list that may come in handy for others on the front lines of the struggle for a livable future.

Disinfectant - I prefer iodine. You can also use an herbal tincture (yarrow is good) if the alcohol content is high enough. But if you carry nothing else, this is probably the thing. I got the MRSA infection simply because I delayed disinfecting a cut for thirty minutes. And no, it wasn't because I had a low immune response. Had I not had a strong immune system I wouldn't have been able to get rid of it at all. Disinfect cuts and scrapes in the field. Just do it.

Bandages, gauze - lots of them. You will almost never need them, though protests are possibly one place you're more likely to. And when you need them you will really need them and in good supply. Use them to stop bleeding. Put them on, apply pressure, get more help.

Tape - to hold the gauze on.

Scissors - to cut the tape and bandages

Disposable gloves - Yes, this is the one area not to be environmentally friendly. Use them if there's blood. Change them each time. When we cut out all single use-plastics, this will be one of the few exceptions.

Sanitary pads - for their usual use as well as as backup bandages

Band-aids - No, not silly. Disinfect and then cover small cuts. Infection is not silly. And a cut hurts a lot less when covered and protected.

Water, Panthenol, raw honey, aloe vera or St. John's Wart salve for burns - Cool water is the single greatest burn remedy. With any burn, get it in water if at all possible as soon as possible. If that's impossible, burn dressings might help, but you aren't likely to have them unless you're a professional. In some parts of Europe, there is a foam available called Panthenol. It was developed during the Vietnam war to counteract Agent Orange. It is the second best thing to water. Other than that, raw honey, aloe vera gel and St. John's Wart salve (roughly in that order) are the next best things.

Plantain salve - Plantain infused olive oil, heated with bee's wax and some vitamin E, then cooled. Use after disinfection on small cuts, bruises and scrapes that you can't put a band aid on.

Antacid mixed with water to wash eyes and faces exposed to tear gas and pepper spray - Use a ratio of 1 to 1.

Clean rags or bandannas - to soak in water or antacid mixture for burns or chemical exposure

Mullein leaf, mallow or thyme tincture - for respiratory problems and to heal respiratory tract after chemical exposure

Lemon balm or valerian tincture or syrup (for children) - to calm nerves and panic attacks, to reduce trauma after a bad fright, to restore strength

Echinacea tincture - As an immune booster after injury or traumatic experience, which is likely to lower immune response

Garbage sacks - to isolate clothing and other materials exposed to tear gas or other chemicals

Ibuprofen - for sprains and other pain relief

Water - for re-hydration and psychological comfort

Wax paper squares - folded into sustainable emergency water cups as an environmentally friendly alternative to lots of plastic cups or bottles. They dry and can be reused. They also take up less space than traditional paper cups.