Burns can be caused by heat, electricity, chemicals, and sun exposure. They vary in severity from causing minor pain to being life-threatening. First-degree burns are the mildest type, only damaging the top layer of skin. The skin gets red, painful, and tender. Though the skin may swell, no blisters form and the area turns white when touched.
Second-degree burns cause damage to deeper layers of the skin. The skin looks much like a first-degree, burn except that blisters form at the surface. The blisters may be red or whitish and are filled with a clear fluid. Third-degree burns are the worst type of burn, extending through all layers of the skin and causing nerve damage. Because of this nerve damage, third-degree burns generally aren't painful and have no feeling when touched—an ominous sign. The skin may be white, blackened, or bright red. Blisters may also be present.
Only first-degree burns should be self-treated. More severe burns require a doctor's supervision to prevent infection and scarring. Third-degree burns and extensive second-degree burns can cause permanent injury or death.
The best treatment for minor burns is to cool the burn as quickly as possible by immersing the area in cold water. The burned area should be kept clean until it heals.
Although there are no well-established natural treatments for minor burns, several preliminary studies suggest a few options for reducing pain and speeding healing.
A series of studies done in India found that a combination of raw honey and gauze was significantly better than conventional types of bandages for superficial burns treated at a hospital.1-3 The burns covered with honey healed faster and with less frequent infection than the burns covered with other types of bandages. Other studies of varying quality have also found evidence of benefit.26,27
Potato peel has also been used successfully in developing countries as a replacement for more expensive conventional bandages.4
Aloe vera is often recommended as a treatment for minor burns; however, no evidence exists to support this claim, and some studies have actually found it ineffective.6,7 Other popular topical burn treatments include calendula, chamomile, goldenseal, and comfrey.
Finally, there is some evidence that hospitalized individuals with severe burns may benefit from nutritional support with certain supplements, including ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate (OKG), arginine, zinc, copper, selenium, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).22-25
For a discussion of homeopathic approaches to burns, see the homeopathy database.
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2. Subrahmanyam M. Honey-impregnated gauze versus amniotic membrane in the treatment of burns. Burns. 1994;20:331-333.
3. Subrahmanyam M. Topical application of honey in treatment of burns. Br J Surg. 1991;78:497-498.
4. Keswani MH, Patil AR. The boiled potato peal as a burn wound dressing: a preliminary report . Burns Incl Therm Inj . 1985;11:220-224.
5. Kartnig T. Clinical applications of Centella asiatica (L.). Herbs Spices Med Plants. 1988;3:146-173.
6. Ship AG. Is topical aloe vera plant mucus helpful in burn treatment [letter]. JAMA. 1977;238:1770.
7. Marshall HM. Aloe vera gel: What is the evidence? Pharmacol J. 1990;244:360-362.
8. Trevithick JR, Xiong H, Lee S, et al. Topical tocopherol acetate reduces post-UVB, sunburn-associated erythema, edema, and skin sensitivity in hairless mice. Arch Biochem Biophys. 1992;296:575-582.
9. Trevithick JR, Shum DT, Redae S, et al. Reduction of sunburn damage to skin by topical application of vitamin E acetate following exposure to ultraviolet B radiation: effect of delaying application or of reducing concentration of vitamin E acetate applied. Scanning Microsc. 1993;7:1269-1281.
10. Darr D, Combs S, Dunston S, et al. Topical vitamin C protects porcine skin from ultraviolet radiation-induced damage. Br J Dermatol. 1992;127:247-253.
11. Darr D, Dunston S, Faust H, et al. Effectiveness of antioxidants (vitamin C and E) with and without sunscreens as topical photoprotectants. Acta Derm Venereol. 1996;76:264-268.
12. Traikovich SS. Use of topical ascorbic acid and its effects on photodamaged skin topography. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 1999;125:1091-1098.
13. Eberlein-Knig B, Placzek M, Przybilla B. Protective effect against sunburn of combined systemic ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and d-alpha-tocopherol (vitamin E). J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998;38:45-48.
14. Fuchs J, Kern H. Modulation of UV-light-induced skin inflammation by D-alpha-tocopherol and L-ascorbic acid: a clinical study using solar simulated radiation. Free Radic Biol Med. 1998;25:1006-1012.
15. Werninghaus K, Meydani M, Bhawan J, et al. Evaluation of the photoprotective effect of oral vitamin E supplementation. Arch Dermatol. 1994;130:1257-1261.
16. Gollnick HPM, Hopfenmller W, Hemmes C, et al. Systemic beta carotene plus topical UV-sunscreen are an optimal protection against harmful effects of natural UV-sunlight: results of the Berlin-Eilath study. Eur J Dermatol. 1996;6:200-205.
17. Lee J, Jiang S, Levine N, et al. Carotenoid supplementation reduces erythema in human skin after simulated solar radiation exposure. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 2000; 223:170-174.
18. Stahl W, Heinrich U, Jungmann H, et al. Carotenoids and carotenoids plus vitamin E protect against ultraviolet light-induced erythema in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 2000;71:795-798.
19. Garmyn M, Ribaya-Mercardo JD, Russel RM, et al. Effect of beta-carotene supplementation on the human sunburn reaction. Exp Dermatol. 1995;4:104-111.
20. Wolf C, Steiner A, Honigsmann H, et al. Do oral carotenoids protect human skin against UV erythema, psoralen phototoxicity, and UV-induced DNA damage? J Invest Dermatol. 1988;90:55-57.
21. Mathews-Roth MM, Pathak MA, Parrish J, et al. A clinical trial of the effects of oral beta-carotene on the responses of human skin to solar radiation. J Invest Dermatol. 1972;59:349-353.
22. Donati L, Ziegler F, Pongelli G, et al. Nutritional and clinical efficacy of ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate in severe burn patients. Clin Nutr. 1999;18:307-311.
23. Han CM. Changes in body zinc and copper levels in severely burned patients and the effects of oral administration of ZnSO4 by a double-blind method [in Chinese; English abstract]. Chung Hua Cheng Hsing Shao Shang Wai Ko Tsa Chih. 1990;6:83-86, 155.
24. Berger MM, Spertini F, Shenkin A, et al. Trace element supplementation modulates pulmonary infection rates after major burns: a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998;68:365-371.
25. Araneo BA, Shelby J, Li G-Z, et al. Administration of dehydroepiandrosterone to burned mice preserves normal immunologic competence. Arch Surg. 1993;128:318-325.
26. Molan PC. Potential of honey in the treatment of wounds and burns. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2001;2:13-19.
27. Jull AB, Rodgers A, Walker N. Honey as a topical treatment for wounds. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;CD005083.
Last reviewed September 2014 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 9/18/2014