Life can be hazardous. Tools, appliances, toys, and medicines carry both benefits and risks. As parents, teachers, and caregivers, we can teach children about safety to remove some of the worry, but we must also be prepared for the inevitable accident. Knowledge of first aid is one of our best defenses.
Learn it before you need it. Take a course. Prepare a first-aid kit. Know where it is, what’s in it, and how to use it so that you don’t have to improvise in the middle of a crisis. We feel that herbs have a place in any standard first- aid kit (see box at the left). If you purchase a standard kit, you can add herbal remedies to it.
Many childhood injuries demand medical attention. If in doubt, call a doctor or emergency medical services immediately. Still, most routine minor mishaps respond to a little care and attention—aided by the materials and herbs in your handy first-aid kit.
Scratches and scrapes
Most skinned knees and scraped elbows need only a good washing with tepid water and mild soap. For dirty wounds, we use a skin cleanser that contains antibacterial grapefruit-seed extract. After you clean the wound, you can apply a salve that contains healing and antimicrobial herbs such as echinacea, calendula, comfrey, plantain, and Oregon grape root. If you can’t remove all the debris from a wound, take your child to a doctor, who can clean the wound under local anesthesia without causing further pain or injury.
After wounds on knees or elbows have scabbed over, herbal ointments and salves can help keep the scabs soft so that they don’t break open and bleed when the child bends the joint. Wounds generally heal faster when left open to the air. When your child is headed to school or to play, tape on a gauze dressing to keep out some of the dirt and keep in the salve.
Small cuts usually stop bleeding on their own. If a cut continues to ooze, cover it with a clean cloth or gauze and apply direct, steady pressure until bleeding stops. For small cuts, you can also curb bleeding with applications of powdered yarrow leaf or flower, horsetail, bistort root, or wild geranium root directly to the site, either dry or mixed with a little water to form a paste.
After the bleeding has stopped or slowed to an ooze, wash the cut with mild soap and water.
If your child receives a minor burn from touching something hot, immediately immerse the injured area in cold water or apply a cold compress. Continue applying cold for 10 minutes or until the pain stops. Gently wash the burned area twice a day with water and mild soap but don’t break any blisters; after several days, they will usually break and drain on their own.
You can usually treat minor burns at home. Applications of aloe vera gel and lavender oil both work well. Dilute the latter before use: 2 drops of essential oil to 1 teaspoon vegetable oil. Your child will enjoy the calming scent, too. Other useful herbs for minor burns include calendula, which is both soothing and anti-inflammatory, and gotu kola extract, which accelerates healing whether used internally or externally. Apply them as gels or compresses.
Most routine minor mishaps respond to a little care and attention—aided by the herbs in your handy first-aid kit.
To relieve sunburn, try green or black tea or witch hazel extract. All contain tannins that soothe the skin and antioxidants that minimize inflammation. Apply cold strong tea as a compress (see “Herbal Poultices and Compresses” below) or in a bath. Spritz witch hazel on sunburned skin or dab it on with a cotton ball.
For chemical burns from lye, acids, drain cleaners, or other substances, remove any chemical-splashed clothing and flood the skin with cool water, preferably in the shower. Identify the chemical and call poison control or your local emergency services number.
For a serious burn, call emergency medical services immediately. While awaiting help, elevate burned extremities to prevent swelling and cut away clothing unless it has adhered to the burn. Loosely cover the wound with sterile gauze or clean cloth. Don’t immerse it in water.
Muscle cramps, strains, and sprains
Cramps—sudden, painful muscle spasms that follow physical exertion—are usually caused by dehydration, so make sure that your child drinks enough water, particularly during warm weather. When the cramp eases, help him stretch the affected muscle and gently massage the area.
Herbs, Kids & Health, from which this article is excerpted, will be available from Interweave Press in March 1999.
You can find it at your local bookstore or herb source, or call (800) 645-3675. Paperbound, 256 pages, two-color illustrations. $21.95 plus $4.95 shipping and handling.
Heat relaxes muscles, so apply a wet towel that is as hot as the child can stand. Soaking in a warm bath will also ease a cramp. We often add 2 cups of a strong tea of sage, calendula, arnica, and/or mint to the water. Drinking mineral-rich herb teas, such as dandelion, nettle, or horsetail, may also be helpful in preventing cramps.
Muscle strains result from injury or overuse; tenderness, stiffness, and sometimes slight swelling follow. Sprains—small tears in the ligaments, the fibrous tissue that connect bones or cartilage at a joint—are more serious. Rapid swelling, localized pain and tenderness, limited movement of the joint, and sometimes bruising signal a sprain.
To manage mild sprains and strains at home, think RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Wrap a bag of frozen vegetables (peas conform nicely), a commercial cold pack, or a plastic bag of ice in a damp cloth and apply to the injured area three or four times the first day for twenty to thirty minutes each time. For the next six to ten days, continue ice compresses once or twice a day, more often if needed.
Opinion varies as to whether to use ice packs alone for the first two weeks after an injury or to alternate hot and cold applications, ending with cold. Check with your physician or see which method works best for your child.
After icing, wrap the injured limb with an elastic bandage only as snug as, say, a trouser sock. Wrapping a bandage too tight cuts off circulation and increases swelling below the injury. Check it frequently at first and loosen if necessary. Remove and rewrap it at least twice a day.
Elevate the limb on pillows so that the injured area is above the heart. Discuss with your child what activities she can do while lying in this position—perhaps reading or listening to music or a book on tape—and arrange things so that she can reach the books or the tape player.
Broken bones, dislocations, and serious sprains require prompt medical attention. But after your child has received treatment, herbal remedies can ease the pain and hasten healing. Here are a few suggestions.
• Feverfew has been studied primarily for its effects against migraine, but Sunny finds that it relieves children’s pain from any source, including muscle spasms. It tastes bitter,so choose capsules or glycerites. Use three to four times daily, following package instructions.
• Turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, has been shown to relieve inflammation as well as hydrocortisone but without toxicity. For a child weighing 50 pounds, half a capsule one to three times daily can be helpful. Ingesting turmeric is generally considered safe except during pregnancy.
• Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) decreases inflammation in a way similar to the body’s own corticosteroids. A typical anti-inflammatory serving for a five-year-old child is 1 cup of licorice tea twice daily for one week.
Black eyes and irritations
No herb can substitute for professional medical care for an injured eye; afterward, herbs can support healing.
Black tea. A tea bag moistened with cool water makes a splendid remedy for a black eye. The tannins in the tea shrink swollen tissue and cause dilated blood vessels to contract, relieving inflammation. Since caffeine can be absorbed by the skin, you may prefer to use decaffeinated tea. We carry tea bags in our auto first-aid kits and have used them to treat sprains and other injuries that result in swelling.
Other astringent herbs include chickweed and the leaves of raspberry, yarrow, comfrey, plantain, and cabbage. Wash and mash any of these; wrap in a clean, cool, damp cloth; apply the poultice to the injured area for fifteen minutes. Kids should keep the injured eye closed during treatment.
Eyebright’s astringent, soothing, and antiseptic properties reduce redness and irritation from dust, pollens, and allergies. Apply an eyebright tea bag or poultice or wash the eye with a strained, cooled infusion made by steeping 1 teaspoon of dried herb in 1 cup of boiled distilled water. Or try the recipe below.
For small particles in the eye, have your child sit on a chair covered with an old towel. Cover clothing with another towel, as the Oregon grape root may stain. Fill a sterilized eyecup with eyewash. Have your child lean forward to rest the opened eye on the eyecup. Now have him lean back, holding the eyecup firmly against his cheek for several minutes. This technique often dislodges hidden particles and soothes the eye.
For minor eye irritations, apply several drops to each eye as many as five times a day.
Barkin, R., ed. Emergency Pediatrics: A Guide to Ambulatory Care. St. Louis: Mosby, 1990.
Fuentes, R., and C. Lowe. The Family First-Aid Guide. New York: Berkley, 1994.
Handal, K. A. The American Red Cross First-Aid & Safety Handbook. New York: Little, Brown, 1992.
Schmitt, B. D. Your Child’s Health. 2nd ed. New York: Bantam, 1991.