Condition Care Guide
What are burns?
Burns are damage to the skin from heat, fire, radiation, sunlight, electricity or chemicals. There are three degrees of severity:
- First-degree: these are the least serious burns. They are marked by redness, and extend only into the outermost layer of skin, known as the epidermis.
- Second-degree: These extend into skin tissue directly below the epidermis (known as the superficial or papillary dermis) and can involve superficial blistering.
- Third-degree: These damage all layers of skin. If they cover a large proportion of the body, they can be life-threatening.
What are the symptoms of burns?
First degree burns are red and painful and may cause some skin swelling. The affected skin may peel off after a day or two, and they typically heal in three to six days. Second degree burns have blisters and are painful and very swollen. The skin appears red and splotchy. These burns usually take two to three weeks to heal. Third degree burns are the most severe but are sometimes the least painful because the burn has damaged nerves in the skin. The skin itself appears white or charred. Healing is prolonged.
What are the causes of burns?
Most burns are caused by heat from fire, hot liquids or steam. Burns caused by caustic chemicals are similar to burns due to heat, while other types of burns - from radiation, too much sun and electricity - have different characteristics. Severe burns can penetrate below the skin into fat, muscle, or bone.
Following the trauma of the burn, fluid leaks into the area from blood vessels, causing swelling and pain. Burned skin is easily infected because it can no longer effectively maintain a barrier against invading organisms.
Some electrical burns can cause internal injuries - but no obvious external damage - and should be treated as a medical emergency with transport to a hospital as soon as possible.
For burn treatment, wash chemical burns with large amounts of water and remove any clothing that has been splashed by the chemical. Don't put anything other than water on the burn (you could set off a chemical reaction that will make matters worse). Call your doctor or 9-1-1.
What are the conventional burn treatments?
The first piece of advice for how to treat a burn is to perform first aid for first degree burns. Immediately, immerse the burned area in cold water (don't use butter, oil, ice or ice water, all of which can worsen the damage). Cover the burn with an antibiotic ointment or aloe vera cream. If you have pain, take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen, Motrin, Advil or naproxen (Aleve).
Soak second degree burns in cool water for 15 minutes, apply an antibiotic cream and cover with a nonstick dressing (hold it in place with gauze or tape). Change the dressing daily (after making sure your hands are clean). Watch for signs of infection (redness, swelling, pus, worse pain) and don't break any blisters that form. As the burn heals, it may itch. Don't scratch.
Go to the hospital immediately for more severe burns. Emergency treatment is essential to prevent dehydration and shock.
What home remedies for burns does Dr. Weil recommend?
Immediately immerse the affected part in cold water and keep it there for five to 10 minutes with brief break (There is a 20 minute critical period during which this treatment is most effective.) Then apply one of the following natural treatments of burns:
- Aloe Vera gel: The clear gel that fills the thick leaves of the succulent Aloe vera plant from Africa is a superior home remedy for burns, so useful that you ought to keep a potted aloe plant in your kitchen to have available in case of an accident. To use the fresh plant, cut off a lower leaf near the central stalk, cut off any spines along the edge, split the leaf length-wise, score the gel with the point of your knife, and apply it directly to the burn. It will soon soak into the skin and provide immediate soothing relief. Use it on sunburn, thermal burns and any areas of skin irritation or inflammation. You can buy aloe products in drugstores and health food stores, but some have too little aloe to do your skin much good. Read labels to determine the percentage of aloe gel in the formula and choose products with the most.
- Calendula tincture: This comes from a popular ornamental plant called a pot marigold (it is not a true marigold). You can buy ready to use calendula products in health food stores.
- Honey: Honey can be spectacularly effective for severe burns and is the basis of a therapy in China that has attracted much attention from doctors in the West. It is soothing, antiseptic and healing. However, I wouldn't depend on the honey from the supermarket - or the health food store - to treat your next burn. Instead, try one of the medicinal honeys. The type used in New Zealand research on honey for wound healing is known as manuka honey, and is available commercially. German physicians have been using Medihoney for treatment of persistent wounds. If you have a bad burn, be sure to get prompt medical treatment. Using honey correctly to treat a serious wound requires considerable expertise.
Be sure to get medical help for any burn that covers a large area, results in charring of skin or becomes infected.