Are you reading this while everyone’s dinner is getting cold, your finger painfully throbbing because you reached for the wrong pan? Or is your child screaming because she didn’t know how hot a toasted marshmallow could get? First, plunge the finger into cold water.
Now keep reading. Everyone knows there are three degrees of burns. First degree (also known as a superficial burn): painful red patch. Second degree (or partial-thickness burn): more painful and a blister forms (don’t pop open the blister!). Third degree (or full-thickness burn): The skin color is generally black or deep brown (though occasionally it’s white in color); it chars the skin but it’s surprisingly painless because the nerve endings have been destroyed. Don’t fool with third-degree burns. Go to an emergency room as quickly as possible.
Here we can provide advice and tips for dealing with your minor burns, including suggestions on pain relief from seasoned WholeHealth Chicago practitioners and recommendations on how you can speed the healing process.
What are Burns?
A burn is damage to the skin caused by heat, electricity, or a corrosive chemical. Depending on the temperature or intensity of the burn source and how long the skin is exposed to it, the injury can range from mild to life-threatening. Burns are classified according to their degree of severity and the amount of skin affected. First-degree, or superficial, burns (such as most sunburns) damage only the epidermis, or outer layer of skin. They can usually be taken care of at home. Though not serious, first-degree burns can be very painful.
Second-degree, or partial-thickness, burns damage not only the outer layer of skin, but part of the underlying layer (the dermis) as well. Although they cause severe pain and blisters, second-degree burns are usually not critical unless they cover a large part of the body or become infected.
Third-degree, or full-thickness, burns are extremely serious. They destroy all layers of the skin, and more critically, depending on their severity, they can damage the muscles, bones, nerves, and blood vessels beneath the affected area. Third-degree burns often require skin grafts and leave scars. Since these burns remove the skin that shields the body from dangerous microorganisms, they are potentially fatal. A third-degree burn should be treated as a medical emergency.
Mild to moderate swelling
Skin that has become white, red, brown, tan, or black (charred) in color
No immediate pain or bleeding due to damaged blood vessels and nerve endings
No blistering, but extensive swelling
What Causes Burns?
Most burns occur at home as the result of an accident. Scalding water, a hot iron, or hot oil or grease usually causes first-degree burns. More serious burns are often due to contact with fire, steam, caustic chemicals, or faulty or uninsulated electrical wiring. (Electrical burns, however, can be deceptive, as external damage seems minimal even though much more serious internal injuries may have occurred.) Outdoors, the most common cause of a burn is overexposure to the sun. Sunburns can be first- or second-degree burns.
Treatment and Prevention
First-degree burns and small second-degree burns can be cared for at home with soothing herbal ointments as well as various vitamins, minerals, and supplements that can help healing. Third-degree burns always demand immediate medical attention.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition, it is a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
As soon as possible after the burn occurs, immerse the burned area in cool water for about 15 minutes. If this isn’t practical because of the location of the burn, apply cool compresses–but take care not to rupture any blisters. A blister is nature’s Band-Aid and will help to keep infection out. When the burn is cool, apply aloe vera gel. Keeping an aloe vera plant on your kitchen windowsill allows you to have fresh aloe vera gel readily available. Just slice apart a leaf and apply directly. Store-bought aloe vera gel is just fine, however. Alternatives to aloe vera gel are lavender oil or a clean dressing soaked in cool chamomile tea. (To cool the tea, add ice.) This will reduce pain and inflammation and soothe the skin.
To guard against infection, apply calendula cream, goldenseal cream, or gotu kola cream to any raw areas, then cover them with a sterile light gauze dressing.
Several nutrients–taken for a week or two, or until the burn heals–are beneficial during the healing process. Taken together, the herbs gotu kola and echinacea, along with vitamins A, C, and E, and the mineral zinc, will serve to boost the immune system, repair damaged tissue, and prevent scarring.
If there’s no aloe vera or chamomile tea available, place several slices of raw potato on the burned area. Replace with fresh slices every two or three minutes before applying the dressing. The starch in the potato may help soothe the damaged skin.
Another handy remedy for mild burns is milk. Soak a clean piece of terry cloth or cotton flannel in milk and apply the compress for about 15 minutes. Repeat this procedure once every two to six hours, rinsing the skin in between applications.
One dairy product not to use is butter. Because it’s oil-based, butter traps heat, slows healing, and increases the risk of later infection. The same can be true for burn ointments.
Raw unpasturized honey, on the other hand, has been used for centuries to treat burns and infections.
While they’re healing, clean the burns daily using mild soap and rinsing well. Be gentle, taking care not to break any blisters.
To protect the affected area from bacteria and keep it dry, cover with a sterile gauze dressing.
Drink plenty of fluids to replace fluids and electrolytes that are lost and needed in the healing process. A good source for this electrolyte solution is a sports drink such as Gatorade or Perform Plus.
Avoid hot showers and direct sunlight until the area has fully healed.
To prevent burn accidents, secure containers holding corrosive chemicals, repair faulty wiring, and cover unused electrical outlets (especially if you have young children).
Install a smoke detector on each floor of your home and keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.
When to Call a Doctor
If a first-degree burn covers a very large area or is extremely painful
If a second-degree burn affects your face or hands or covers an area greater than the palm of your hand
If you suffer a third-degree burn on any part of your body
If you suffer a chemical or electrical burn
If you experience fever, vomiting, chills, or swollen glands after receiving a burn. (These symptoms may mean the burn has become infected.)
If you notice pus in the blisters, an offensive odor coming from the burn or if pain and redness worsen. (These signs could suggest an infection.)
If you have any doubt about the severity of a burn, you should consult your physician.
From David Edelberg, M.D. at WholeHealth Chicago: The first steps to take with a first-degree or minor second-degree burn are self-care first-aid measures. A third-degree burn, on the other hand, requires immediate medical attention.
At home, start with any of the topical therapies on the list. Apply a dry, light dressing, take a painkiller (aspirin or Tylenol) and begin using the oral supplements on our list. It’s obviously helpful if you have a ready supply of aloe vera gel or cooled chamomile tea on hand. Alternatively, since everybody has access to cold water or milk, use one of those to start cooling your burn pronto. Just don’t reach for the butter–this old-time home remedy simply traps heat and slows healing.
How to Take the Supplements
To halt skin damage and allow healing to start, soak the burned skin in ice water or lay on cool compresses. Then apply aloe vera gel or any of the other suggested topical remedies to relieve pain and inflammation.
If you can’t find aloe vera gel, make a strong cup of chamomile tea, cool it with some ice, and add a few drops of lavender oil (if available); saturate a soft cloth and spread it over the burned area. As an alternative to the tea, prepare your compress by adding 2 tablespoons of chamomile liquid extract to 1/4 cup of cold water.
If you don’t have aloe vera gel or chamomile handy, after cooling your burn with ice water or milk, dry the area gently and apply calendula cream (often found mixed with comfrey and coneflower). You really should have calendula cream in your medicine cabinet, but if you don’t, it’s available at most drug and health-food stores. If any raw or weeping areas develop, apply antibacterial goldenseal cream (this is available as a plain product or mixed with bee propolis) to prevent an infection.
If you’re prone to scarring, mix equal amounts of the liquid extract form of gotu kola and water. Soak a small piece of cloth in this solution and use as a compress over your burned area for a few minutes three times a day.
Immediately after the burn, start taking vitamins A, C, and E in the doses recommended. Add the gotu kola and zinc as well. All these nutrients help in the healing process.
Take these supplements for a week or two until the burn looks completely healed. Add the echinacea only if you are prone to skin infections and think your immune system needs some support.
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications. Key cautions are given in the listing below, but you need to see the WholeHealth Chicago Reference Library for a comprehensive discussion of each supplement’s cautions and drug/nutrient interactions.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call at 773-296-6700, ext. 2001.
David Edelberg, MD