HOME REMEDIES FOR BURNS
Certainly, burns are injuries that can have long-standing consequences in good times or bad. Conventional burn care in modern hospitals is complex and can achieve miracles, but won’t be an option in long-term survival settings. What can the medic do with limited supplies to help burn victims recover?
The first step to treating burns on or off the grid is cooling the wound with running water. Most would perform this action for a few seconds only, but you must allow the water to run for 10-15 minutes for the best effect. Even submersion in cool water may help if running water isn’t available.
You might be tempted to use ice, but burned skin is traumatized; ice constricts blood vessels and decreases circulation to an area that desperately needs it.
Aloe vera is a “succulent” plant, which means that it has some parts that are thick and fleshy. This allows it to retain water in its natural habitat. Although it likes warm climates, it can be grown successfully indoors in pots.
Many studies have shown aloe vera helps maintain moist conditions in damaged skin, encouraging faster healing. Having said that, other sources believe that its beneficial effect on burns has not been sufficiently proven. All I can say is that it’s soothing and works for me.
Aloe vera is particularly useful because it’s simple to use. Just cut a leaf and rub the slimy inside on a minor burn. Reapply several times daily, with or without a bandage covering.
When my wife was a kid, she would often get sunburns. Her family used vinegar as a natural astringent and antiseptic as well as to help prevent infections. She always says that salads remind her of her childhood!
The best way to use vinegar on smaller sized burns is to make a compress with 1/2 vinegar and 1/2 cool water and cover the burn until the compress feels warm, then re-soak the compress and reapply.
A cool bath with added vinegar helps with sunburn over large areas of skin. If the burn is on the torso, soak a cotton t-shirt in vinegar, wring it out, and wear it to bed. Warning: You’ll smell like, well, vinegar…
Another “cooling off” treatment for burns is witch hazel compresses.
The extract of the bark inflammation and soothes first degree burns because it contains chemicals called tannins. Applied directly to the skin, witch hazel helps reduce swelling, help repair damaged skin, and prevent infection.
Soak a compress in full strength witch hazel and apply to the burned area. Reapply as frequently as desired.
BLACK TEA BAGS
Another item high in tannic acid is black tea. Put 2 to 3 tea bags under a spout of hot water and collect the tea in a small bowl. Allow to cool and gently dab the liquid on the burn site to help draw heat from the burn.
Another method involves using 3 or 4 tea bags, 2 cups fresh mint leaves, and 4 cups of boiling water. Strain the liquid into a jar and allow to cool; then dab the mixture on burned skin with a cotton ball or washcloth. A black tea poultice can also be placed directly on the burn and held in place with a dressing.
ELDER FLOWER, COMFREY LEAF, AND OTHER HERBS
Besides witch hazel, various herbs have a soothing effect on burns. These include elder flower, comfrey leaf, lavender, tea tree, calendula, and St. John’s Wort. Many of these have anti-inflammatory actions and are helpful to ward against infection.
If used as an oil, some herbs can be applied to the affected area directly or as a poultice. They can be used as teas or decoctions as well. A decoction is the result of concentrating a substance by heating or boiling and usually results in a stronger version that, say, a tea.
Lavender oil is reported to be a useful treatment when applied to burns or scalds. St. John’s wort oil will also help skin heal and decrease associated inflammation. In other settings, simply applying elder flowers or comfrey leaves may have a beneficial effect.
Although many use essential oils for burns, avoid coconut oil, butter, or lard. These are so thick that they hold heat in.
It’s important to know that scientific data for some herbal products’ benefits are hard to find. Do you own research and reach your own conclusions.
You’ll often hear about baking soda as a home remedy for burns. Indeed, it seems to be useful to relieve pain and is simple to use. Mix baking soda with water to create a paste and apply to the injury. Once dry, the area can be washed mildly and more paste applied as desired.
Baking soda may be helpful as a bath, as well. Add 1/4 cup baking soda to a warm bath and soak for at least 15 minutes.
Whole milk has fat and proteins that can soothe a burn. Soak a washcloth in cold milk and apply to the burn until it is no longer cold. Be aware that it might develop an odor if left on too long.
Full-fat yogurt is thought to have a hydrating effect on burned skin. Wrap two cold tablespoons or more inside gauze and use as a compress. Replace when it loses its coolness.
During the healing process, burn wounds can cause significant itching. Give your patient some relief by adding a cup of uncooked oatmeal into a lukewarm tub of water. A good soak of 15 to 20 minutes allows a thin coating of oatmeal to remain on your skin. Beware of slipping while getting in or out of the bath (oatmeal makes surfaces slippery).
“COTTON ASH” PASTE
Many of us have heard of one or the other of the preceding remedies, but here’s a novel one: cotton ash paste.
1. Take a large piece of cotton wool or any kind of pure white cotton fabric and burn it into ashes,
2. Use the ash of the burned cotton and mix with olive oil or any kind of cooking oil available.
3. Mix this into a thick paste and spread the black paste on the burned skin.
4. Cover with plastic wrap (not all the way around an extremity or it may be constricting) or non-stick Telfa pads. add a loose gauze wrap to hold it all in place.
5. Add new paste every day for a week or so depending on the severity of the burn.
RAW UNPROCESSED HONEY
Honey is well-known as a home remedy for wounds of various types, and burns are no exception. Raw, unprocessed honey is the best to use because its antibacterial activity and hydrating properties haven’t been “cooked out”.
Here’s how to use honey as a burn treatment:
1. After cooling down with running water, apply a generous amount of honey in a thick layer over the burned area.
2. Spread honey onto a waterproof dressing to prevent it from sticking to the skin. Cover the entire area.
3. As often happens, the dressing may begin to fill up with fluid oozing out of the wound. Regular, frequent dressing changes will be important (no matter which method you use).
4. If you used cling wrap let it stay in place for the first 48 hours then check and add more honey. Re-cover with new cling wrap or non-stick dressings for another 48 hours. Repeat this for 8-10 days.
5. Do not remove or wash off the honey for the first 20 days (or earlier if healing is complete). Add more honey often and fill up any deeper areas of severe burns as needed. Always have a thick layer of honey extending over the edges of the burn. This will prevent exposure to air until healing is completed; even air contains bacteria that could cause infection).
There are many other remedies for burns, some of which you may have used yourself. I hope you’ll place your experiences with these in the comments section wherever this article is posted.
Joe Alton MD
Find out more about burns, home remedies, and 150 other topics in the Book Excellence Award winner in medicine “The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for when Medical Help is Not on the Way“. Learn about infectious diseases and antibiotics you can get for your medical storage in our latest book: “Alton’s Antibiotics and Infectious Disease: The Layman’s Guide to Available Antibiotics in Austere Settings“.