Burns are damage to tissue that can result from exposure to extreme heat, chemicals, electricity, or radioactive material.
For minor burns, natural medicine may be helpful after the burn is cleaned with soap and cold water and gently dried. Because of the risk of infection, topical applications should not be made to blistered or open burn wounds, unless under medical supervision. Extensive burns or burns causing more than minor discomfort should be treated by a healthcare professional.
What are the symptoms of burns?
Symptoms depend on the severity and cause of the burn but usually include pain and sensitivity to touch. The skin may appear swollen, blistered, dried, charred, weeping, or red, gray, or black-colored.
Dietary changes that may be helpful for burns
The body repairs and builds new tissues in a process called anabolism. Adequate amounts of calories and protein are required for anabolism, as the skin and underlying tissues are comprised of protein and energy is needed to fuel repair mechanisms. While major injuries requiring hospitalization raise protein and calorie requirements significantly, injuries such as minor burns should not require changes from a typical, healthful diet.1
Nutritional supplements that may be helpful for burns
Antioxidants may protect the skin from sunburn due to free radical-producing ultraviolet rays.2 Combinations of 1,000 to 2,000 IU per day of vitamin E and 2,000 to 3,000 mg per day of vitamin C, but neither given alone, have a significant protective effect against ultraviolet rays, according to double-blind studies.3 4 5 Oral synthetic beta-carotene alone was not found to provide effective protection in a recent double-blind study,6 it may be effective in combination with topical sunscreen.7 However, other carotenoids such as lycopene may be more important for ultraviolet protection. One recent uncontrolled trial found 40 grams per day of tomato paste providing 16 mg per day lycopene for 10 weeks protected against burning by ultraviolet rays.8 Another uncontrolled trial found 25 mg/day of natural mixed carotenoids also protected against ultraviolet radiation, especially when combined with 500 IU per day of vitamin E.9
Double-blind research has also shown that topical application of antioxidants protects against sunburn if used before,10 but not after, exposure.11 12
Despite a lack of research on the subject, using vitamin E topically on minor burns is a popular remedy. This makes sense, because some of the damage done to the skin is oxidative, and vitamin E is an antioxidant. Some doctors suggest simply breaking open a capsule of vitamin E and applying it to the affected area two or three times per day. Vitamin E forms are listed as either “tocopherol” or “tocopheryl” followed by the name of what is attached to it, as in “tocopheryl acetate.” While both forms are active when taken by mouth, the skin utilizes the tocopheryl forms very slowly.13 14 Therefore, those planning to apply vitamin E to the skin should buy the tocopherol form.
Colloidal silver has been used as a topical antiseptic for minor burns for over a century. Internal use of colloidal silver is not recommended for this condition.
Are there any side effects or interactions with burns?
Refer to the individual supplement for information about any side effects or interactions.
Herbs that may be helpful for burns
Aloe is another popular remedy for minor burns and a small preliminary study found it more effective than Vaseline in treating burns.15 The stabilized aloe gel is typically applied to the affected area of skin three to five times per day. Older case studies reported that aloe gel applied topically could help heal radiation burns,16 but a large, double-blind trial did not find aloe effective in this regard.17
Calendula cream may be applied to minor burns to soothe pain and help promote tissue repair. It has been shown in animal studies to be anti-inflammatory18 and to aid repair of damaged tissues.19 The cream is applied three times per day. Plantain is regarded as similar to calendula in traditional medicine, though usually the whole leaf is applied directly to the burn as a poultice.
Gotu kola has been used in the medicinal systems of central Asia for centuries to treat numerous skin diseases. Saponins in gotu kola beneficially affect collagen (the material that makes up connective tissue) to inhibit its production in hyperactive scar tissue following burns or wounds.20
Are there any side effects or interactions with burns?
Refer to the individual herb for information about any side effects or interactions.
Holistic approaches that may be helpful for burns
Acupuncture may be useful in the treatment of serious burns. A report of patients suffering from extensive second-degree burns suggests acupuncture can reduce shock and pain following the acute injury and may reduce infection and pain when used as a part of post-injury wound care.21 A preliminary report described ten patients with second-degree burns that did not respond to conventional medical treatment. A majority of these patients achieved greater than 90% recovery following electrical stimulation to the wound (similar to electroacupuncture).22 Ear (auricular) acupuncture with electrical stimulation was studied in a small controlled trial, in which a significantly greater reduction in pain from burns was achieved with acupuncture. The relief lasted at least 60 minutes following acupuncture treatment.23