An estimated 80 percent of minor injuries occur at home. Fortunately, most can also be treated effectively at home with a comforting combination of first aid and natural remedies.
Minor wounds break the integrity of the skin, the body’s largest organ. The skin has two layers — the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis is the skin you see, the thin layer (about five cells deep) that’s in direct contact with the environment. The epidermis sheds cells constantly, without causing wounds because it has no blood supply. New cells from the underlying dermis quickly replace cells lost to shedding. The epidermis is also host to millions of bacteria and other microorganisms. Ordinarily, these residents cause no problems, but that can change quickly when you suffer a minor wound.
Beneath the epidermis is the dermis, which contains a rich blood supply — the reason minor wounds bleed so much; millions of nerve endings — the reason wounds hurt; and the connective tissue (collagen) that holds the skin together and gives it elasticity.
When a wound tears the dermis, microorganisms from the epidermis invade and threaten infection. The immune system goes to work to close the breach and kill the germs. Blood vessels around the wound dilate and extra blood rushes into the area, rinsing the wound and cleaning it. The extra blood also carries a small army of white blood cells that attack infection-causing microorganisms. This process causes inflammation — swelling, redness and pain around the wound. Cells injured by the wound die, but before they expire, they release a protein that triggers blood clotting (thromboplastin), which eventually forms a scab that closes the wound.
After about 24 hours, other white blood cells release proteins that stimulate the repair of injured blood vessels and the creation of new skin cells and collagen. Sometimes the process is less than perfect, and collagen forms where you should have skin. The result is a scar.
If a wound gets infected, pain and inflammation persist or increase, and after a few days, a creamy yellowish fluid, known as pus, may ooze from your scab. Pus is made up of dead bacteria and white blood cells.
No matter what kind of wound you have, according to studies dating back to the 1930s, vitamin C can help. Low blood levels of vitamin C slow healing, while high levels speed formation of new skin cells and collagen, according to Melvyn Werbach, a medical doctor and assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles.
More recent research has confirmed these effects. In a 1996 study, British researchers gave bedsore sufferers standard care plus either a placebo or vitamin C (500 mg twice daily). After one month, the sores’ average areas shrank by 43 percent in the placebo group and 84 percent in the vitamin group.
New York City - based nutritionist Shari Lieberman, co-author of The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book (Avery, 1997), suggests taking even more vitamin C — 5,000 to 10,000 mg per day if you have a large wound or burn. Note: Large doses of vitamin C can cause diarrhea. If this occurs, reduce your dose.
Other research suggests that vitamin E and zinc also promote wound healing and reduce the risk of scarring. As wounds heal, Lieberman recommends a daily dose of 400 to 800 IU of vitamin E and 30 to 50 mg of zinc.
Emotional stress impairs immune function. It comes as no surprise that stress also interferes with wound healing. Ohio State University researchers studied 26 women, half of whom were stressed by caring for spouses with Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers inflicted identical minor puncture wounds on all of the women, then treated them all with an antiseptic (hydrogen peroxide) and tracked the wounds as they healed. Healing took significantly longer among the Alzheimer’s caregivers (49 days versus 39).
Meanwhile, effective stress management accelerates wound healing. Researchers at Southeastern Louisiana University worked with 24 people who had their gallbladders removed. As the patients emerged from surgery, half received standard care, while half were given audio tapes containing a relaxation program. A day later, the relaxation group showed less anxiety, lower blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol and less inflammation from the surgical incision.
Any relaxation program helps: meditation, visualization exercises, listening to music, yoga, tai chi, etc. The Academy for Guided Imagery has produced many relaxation tapes that combine soothing music and meditative visualization exercises. Contact the organization by calling (800) 726-2070; www.interactiveimagery.com.
• Start with first aid. Bleeding from minor cuts usually stops by itself. If not, apply direct pressure until it does.
• Wash cuts carefully with soap and water.
• Apply antiseptic. Doctors often suggest alcohol, iodine, antibacterial ointments and hydrogen peroxide, all available at pharmacies. However, aloe, tea tree oil and honey are more natural, equally effective alternatives.
The gel inside Aloe vera’s fleshy leaves is best known as a treatment for minor burns, but it also helps treat cuts. In fact, aloe became medically prominent more than 2,000 years ago when Alexander the Great’s army used it as a treatment for battle wounds. Modern researchers have identified several reasons why aloe gel spurs wound healing: It has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activity that helps prevent wound infections. It also has immune-stimulating and anti-inflammatory actions, and it stimulates collagen synthesis and skin regeneration. Aloe contains vitamins C and E, plus the mineral zinc.
“Most household cuts and burns occur in the kitchen,” San Francisco - based family doctor Anne Simons says. “Keep a potted aloe plant in yours, and you’ll have fresh gel handy whenever you need it. Just snip off a leaf, slit it open, scoop out the gel and apply it.”
When British explorer Captain James Cook first arrived in Australia in 1777, he found the indigenous people treating wounds with crushed tea tree leaves (Melaleuca alternifolia). The oil in tea tree leaves is a powerful antiseptic.
“I use tea tree oil on wounds,” James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy (Rodale, 1997), says. “It’s as good as any nonherbal antiseptic.”
Ancient Egyptian medical papyruses advised covering wounds with honey. Recent research shows the early Egyptians were on to something — honey has potent antibacterial action. British researchers cultured all the bacteria that commonly cause surgical wound infections and then placed two drops of honey in each petri dish. Honey treatment substantially inhibited most bacterial growth.
Another option, according to Richard Knutson, an orthopedic surgeon at Kings Daughter’s Hospital in Greenville, Mississippi, is to use a paste made from granulated sugar and water. Sugar also helps prevent infection and speeds healing.
To help support skin regeneration, try one of the following herbs: chamomile, comfrey, calendula or gotu kola.
There’s more to chamomile (Matricaria recutita) than its common use as a tasty, calming tea. The oils in this herb are also anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and promote skin regeneration. That’s why Germany’s Commission E, the government panel that judges the safety and efficacy of herbal medicines for Germany’s counterpart of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recommends the herb for wound healing. Make a strong tea using 1 heaping teaspoon of flowers per cup of boiling water. Steep until cool. Apply using a compress.
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) contains allantoin, a compound that helps heal wounds. Duke suggests applying fresh, washed and bruised leaves directly to wounds as a poultice, or making a paste from powdered leaves and water and applying that. (You could also try skin-care products that contain comfrey, available at health-food stores.)
In recent years, comfrey’s reputation has suffered because it contains compounds (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) that can cause liver damage when ingested. You shouldn’t ingest this herb, but there’s no danger in using it externally for wound healing.
Calendula (Calendula officinalis) has been used for centuries to help heal wounds. British scientists recently discovered why — the herb stimulates the growth of new skin. Commission E recommends brewing a tea using 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried flowers per cup of boiling water. Steep until cool. Apply using a compress, or mix 1 to 2 teaspoons of tincture in a cup of water and apply that.
Indians have used gotu kola (Centella asiatica) for centuries to heal wounds. No wonder: The herb’s asiatic acid stimulates collagen synthesis. Gotu kola salves are available at some health-food stores and herb shops, or you can apply a compress containing tincture, liquid extract or tea. For tea, use 2 teaspoons of dried leaves per cup of boiling water. Steep until cool.
• Cool it. As quickly as possible, run cold water over minor burns, or use an ice pack. Place a few ice cubes in a plastic bag wrapped in a cloth (or use a commercial cold pack). Apply for 20 minutes, then wait 10 minutes before applying again.
Flushing with cool water is especially important for chemical burns caused by drain, oven and toilet cleaners. Flush the area with cool water continuously for 15 to 30 minutes. If the chemical container is available, read and follow the first-aid instructions on the label.
• Pacify the pain. Doctors recommend aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil). A natural alternative is white willow bark (Salix spp.), which contains pain-relieving compounds similar to aspirin. Commission E endorses white willow bark for treatment of pain. For a decoction, soak 1 teaspoon of powdered bark per cup of cold water for 8 hours. Strain. Drink up to 3 cups a day with honey and/or lemon. If you’re sensitive to aspirin, do not use willow — the herb may upset your stomach.
• Apply aloe. Aloe first came to modern medical attention in the 1930s, with a medical journal report that the herb helped heal burns inflicted by radiation treatments. In 1995, Thai researchers treated 27 people with fairly serious (second-degree) burns with either aloe gel or Vaseline under gauze dressings. The average time to healing in the Vaseline group was more than 18 days. In the aloe group, it was about 11 days.
• Spread on honey. Indian researchers treated burn victims using either a standard dressing or one impregnated with honey. The honey group’s burns healed twice as quickly (nine days versus 18 days).
• Dab on lavender oil. During the 1920s, French perfume chemist René-Maurice Gattefossé burned his arm. Frantic with pain, he plunged his arm into the nearest cold liquid, a bowl of lavender oil. Immediately, he noticed surprising pain relief. As the days passed, his burn healed remarkably quickly with little discomfort and no scarring. Gattefossé devoted the rest of his life to studying essential oils as healers. In 1928, he coined the term “aromatherapy.”
Herbalists and aromatherapists Kathi Keville and Mindy Green, co-authors of Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (The Crossing, 1995), suggest placing a few drops of lavender oil on burns or mixing three drops each of lavender oil, tea tree oil, chamomile oil and calendula oil, and applying the mixture to the burn.
• Don’t break blisters. Burns may cause blisters. It’s tempting to pop them, but doing so risks infection. If blisters break on their own, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water, then cover with gauze impregnated with honey, aloe, lavender oil or tea tree oil. Wash the broken blister and change the bandage and dressing once a day.
Bruises are red, blue or purple marks on the skin. Around the eyes, they’re called black eyes. Bruises occur when a fall or blow leaves the skin intact but damages the capillaries beneath it. The capillaries bleed, and the blood that collects under the skin gives bruises their dark color. Over time, the body reabsorbs the blood and bruises fade, usually within two weeks. People bruise more easily as they age because skin capillaries become more fragile.
• Apply an ice pack as quickly as possible. Ice reduces pain and swelling. Do not take aspirin or use willow bark — they are anticoagulants and prolong bleeding.
• Take bromelain. This enzyme found in pineapple has anti-inflammatory action. In one study, 146 boxers whose faces were swollen and bruised from fighting were given either a placebo or bromelain (250 mg three times daily on an empty stomach). After four days, swelling had subsided in 14 percent of the placebo group, but in 78 percent of the bromelain group. Bromelain is available at health-food stores and supplement shops (chewable varieties of bromelain supplements taste delicious), or you can eat more pineapple.
As wounds begin to heal, pain, tenderness, redness and swelling should subside. If they persist or get worse, the wound is infected. Minor infections can be treated safely at home by washing with soap and water, soaking the affected area in warm water and applying aloe, honey, lavender and tea tree oil. But if symptoms continue — especially if pus begins oozing — see a doctor.
Michael Castleman’s book The New Healing Herbs(Rodale, 2001), is a scientific investigation of 100 plants used in traditional herbal medicine. Visit his website at www.mcastleman.com.
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