Gardeners are earthy people, and many of them enjoy burying their toes and hands in the dirt. But, is it safe to garden with bare hands? Could you injure yourself or get sick from not using gloves when gardening?
It’s not safe to garden with only your bare hands. Some plants have thorns or sharp branches, and soil and plant debris are full of contaminants such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, and other harmful organisms that can cause illness. To protect yourself, wear gloves and a particulate mask.
In this article, I’ll explain the dangers of gardening with bare hands, what equipment you should wear, how to keep your tools rust-free, and whether it’s safe to garden with potting soil. I’ll describe what to do if you cut yourself, breathe in potting soil, or if you think you’re sick.
The Dangers of Gardening With Bare Hands
Humans have been digging and handling plants with their bare hands since before the Mesopotamians invented farming. So, why is it unsafe to garden with your bare hands?
When you’re gardening, you come into contact with sharp branches, thorns, and potentially rusty metal, as well as soil and plant debris. This is the perfect environment for acquiring illnesses and infections.
Here are some of the most common illnesses you can get from gardening with your bare hands:
Tetanus is a bacterial infection. It’s caused by a bacterium called Clostridium Tetani. When Clostridium Tetani gets into your bloodstream, it secretes a toxin that causes intense and painful muscle contractions. This is why Tetanus is sometimes referred to as “Lockjaw.”
The bacteria that causes Tetanus is commonly found in gardens. It’s spread through fecal matter, and manure is a common fertilizer. It’s also present in most potting soils. So, whether you use manure to fertilize or not, your garden has probably been exposed to Tetanus.
You can read more about how to protect yourself from Tetanus in this article by Cleveland Clinic.
Another danger that comes hand-in-hand with gardening is sepsis. Sepsis happens when you contract an infection. In some cases, your body might overreact to it and wind up attacking itself.
Sepsis is extremely common. The World Health Organization says it kills 11 million people each year, and clotting from sepsis causes countless more limb amputations in those who survive their fight with it. However, cuts and infections aren’t the only way you can get sick from gardening.
What Gardening Equipment Should You Wear?
So, how do you keep yourself safe while gardening? Are gloves enough to keep you safe, or should you wear additional safety gear?
You should always wear gloves while gardening, and if you’re working with potting soil, you should also wear a mask. Potting soil is full of bacteria, funguses, parasites, and other harmful organisms, and when you open packages full of it, potting soil can become airborne.
Breathing in potting soil is one of the main causes of Legionnaires’ Disease, a form of lung inflammation that can be severe. To protect yourself against airborne soil contaminants, you should wear a P1 or P2 particulates mask when handling potting soil.
You can read more about potting soil and how it can cause Legionnaires’ Disease in my other article: Do You Need To Wear Gloves When Using Potting Mix?
Keeping Your Tools Clean and Rust-Free
If you’re an avid gardener, part of minimizing risk while gardening is keeping your tools clean and rust-free. Not only can plant diseases be spread via tools, but you can contract tetanus and other diseases if you accidentally cut or scratch yourself with them.
After you use your tools, you should do the following to keep them clean:
- Always wash them gently with soap and water to get rid of any bacteria or viruses coating them.
- Then, oil them gently with a cloth or by submerging them in a bucket of sand and oil.
- Hang them to dry in a cool, dry place.
If your tools are already rusted, you can remove the rust with a grinder or with rust removal chemicals.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to keep your garden tools rust-free, don’t miss my other article: How to Keep Your Garden Tools from Rusting
Is It Safe To Garden With Potting Soil?
I’ve mentioned several times now that potting soil can be dangerous. If you take the appropriate safety cautions, is it safe to use? Or should you avoid potting soil completely?
It’s safe to garden with potting soil as long as you wear gloves and a P1 or P2 particulates mask. Potting soil is an incredible tool for helping your plants grow well, and the risk to you is minimal so long as you protect yourself from airborne particulates and organisms that might be lurking in the mix.
P1 and P2 are code-names for certain strengths of filters in masks. P1 filters will keep out particulates that are less than 2 micrometers, whereas P2 masks will keep out particles less than 0.2 micrometers.
If you’re at a loss as to what mask to buy, try asking someone at your local gardening center. Employees at a gardening center will have to work with potting soil all the time, so they’ll likely know what you should wear while handling it.
What To Do if You Cut Yourself While Gardening
What should you do if you accidentally cut yourself while gardening? Should you immediately rush to the emergency room, or should you try and deal with it at home?
Unless you’re bleeding a lot and it won’t stop, you can effectively disinfect most gardening cuts at home. There’s no real way to detect an infection at this stage, so caring for it appropriately is the best you can do. Once you stop the bleeding, you can disinfect it and apply antibiotic creams to try and minimize the chance of getting sick.
To disinfect a wound after you cut yourself while gardening, follow these steps:
- Wash your hands. You don’t want the wound to become any more contaminated than it already is.
- Apply pressure until the wound stops bleeding. However, if the wound doesn’t stop bleeding after 5-10 minutes or is bleeding profusely, ignore the rest of this guide and head straight to the emergency room.
- Gently rinse the wound with water. You want to wash out any particulates or contaminants, but you don’t want to aggravate the wound so it starts to bleed again. Don’t scrub it, just let it sit under running water from your tap.
- Cover the wound with an antibiotic ointment. If you aren’t sure which one you should use, Polysporin Complete is a good choice. If an ointment has antibiotics, it will say so on the tube.
- If the wound is large or deep, bandage it. Use a non-stick bandage. If you have sensitive skin, you can use a paper bandage instead. If your wound is not large or deep, though, it’s often a better idea to leave it open to the air.
What To Do if You Accidentally Breathe In Potting Soil
What should you do if you accidentally breathe in potting soil without a mask? Is there anything you can do?
There’s not much you can do if you accidentally breathe in potting soil other than try and cough it out and then watch for signs of lung inflammation. There’s no way to tell if you’ve acquired Legionnaire’s Disease this early, but you may experience chest congestion as your body produces more mucus to remove the particles.
Breathing in steam may help with any congestion you experience. You can either take a shower or put a pot of boiling water on the stove. For the latter, you’ll need to put a towel over your head and then lean over the boiling water to trap the steam so you can breathe it in. Be careful not to let your towel touch the burner!
Whether you have chest congestion or not, it’s a good thing to call or see your doctor. If you do, they can keep an eye on you for any signs of soil-borne illness, and get a headstart on treatment if you start to become sick.
What To Do if You Think You May Be Sick from Gardening
If you have a wound that is swollen and hot to the touch, you have a stubborn or distressing cough, or you’re experiencing muscle contractions, it’s best to see a doctor.
Don’t downplay your symptoms or wait for them to clear up. Leaving an illness for too long or underplaying its severity to your doctors can cause it to progress until it becomes life-threatening and requires extreme intervention like dialysis or a ventilator.
If you can breathe and aren’t experiencing severe symptoms, you could probably wait to see your GP. But if you have chills and are vomiting or can’t breathe, you should head to the emergency room. Either way, call your doctor and schedule an appointment, or go and see a doctor at a clinic or at the hospital.
At the end of the day, your health is in your own hands. No one can help you if you don’t give them the full picture of what you’re experiencing. So, whether you cut yourself in your garden or breathe in potting mix, try to give your doctors your best account of your symptoms and what happened before you started experiencing them.
Gardening can be dangerous if you don’t wear gloves or handle potting soil without a mask. You can acquire tetanus, sepsis, or even Legionnaires’ Disease from gardening. To protect yourself, wear proper equipment, keep your tools rust-free, and disinfect any wounds soon after suffering them.