The truth about home remedies for burns and scalds

SINGAPORE - Most people have experienced a minor burn some time in their lives, such as a sunburn or a scald caused by hot cooking oil. Odds are, however, few have treated it right.

You have heard the advice from well-meaning family and friends - rub it with toothpaste, honey or ice. But these home remedies may not work.

Worse, some may cause more harm than good.

"Up to this day, we still hear of old wives' tales of using toothpaste or soya sauce to treat minor burns," said Professor Colin Song, a visiting consultant at Singapore General Hospital's Department of Plastic, Reconstructive & Aesthetic Surgery.

"There are many other effective types of first-aid care for acute burn injuries."

The main thing to do with a minor burn is to cool it down.

Rapidly cooling the tissue immediately after a burn injury goes a long way in limiting the damage caused by contact of living tissue to the thermal source, said Prof Song.

Holding a burnt arm or leg under cool running water for a good long while will reduce the pain and risk of scarring, said Ms Lin Qun, a senior pharmacist at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH).

A cool wet towel can also be used to soothe a burn wound. But do not soak the whole body in cold water as this may result in hypothermia, in which the body's temperature drops below normal, said Prof Song.

Currently, the only burn dressing available on the market is Aluminaid Burn Dressings. It is said to work by quickly withdrawing heat from first- and second-degree burn injuries, claimed Mr Steve Carroll, Aluminaid's chief technical officer.

These are to be used immediately after the burn as they have a thermal radiator layer that helps to conduct heat quickly out of the wound into the surroundings, thereby relieving pain and stopping burn damage from permeating to deeper tissue layers.

Sold at Unity pharmacies and priced from $2.95, the product was launched this year.

Ms Lin said she and her colleagues have not had any experience with the new product at KTPH.

"This series of product seems to be targeting burn relief... Do check with the pharmacist or any health-care professional if you need more information on the product before purchasing it."

WHEN TO SELF-TREAT

You can treat minor burns at home, which are first- or minor second-degree burns - known today as partial thickness burns.

A first-degree burn, such as a sunburn, usually displays redness and will not blister.

"A quickfire way to check for this is to press the skin lightly with your finger and remove it quickly. The skin should blanch (turn white) and return to red once you remove the pressure," said Aluminaid's Mr Steve Carroll. The Singapore-based company produces the only burn dressing available here.

"There is also a mild pain involved."

A second-degree burn will usually blister. It will swell and can be very painful, depending on the size and depth of the injury.

"The skin will be a deep red and will not blanch if the burn is deep," said Mr Carroll.

Third-degree burns or full-thickness burns are the most severe and are usually not painful as the nerves have been destroyed. The burnt areas may be charred black or appear dry and white. These burns need immediate medical attention.

WHEN TO SEEK HELP

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital's Ms Lin Qun advises a person suffering from burns to seek immediate medical attention if:

1. The burns involve areas such as the face, hands (where multiple fingers or joints are affected rather than a very small area such as the tip of a finger), feet, buttocks, genital or any major joint area.

2.The burnt surface is bigger than 7.5cm in diameter or approximately the size of your palm.

3. The burns look dark red, pearly or yellowish-white.

4. The affected person is a child under two years of age.

5.It is an electrical burn.

The truth about home remedies

Ice: It prevents the body's natural defence mechanism from healing the wound by causing blood vessels to constrict. Frostbite can occur and cause further damage.

Aloe Vera: With a water content of 99 per cent and more than 100 active minerals, it has some credence, but it is unlikely to be recommended for use on second-degree burns.

Butter or oil products: Oil retains heat and may make the burn worse. If you put anything on top of a burn and it later needs to be removed in the hospital, it may cause further pain, distress and damage. These products can also cause infection.

Adhesive bandages: These will stick to the skin and may cause further damage. Use cling film or sterile gauze to cover the burn after cooling it as these items will not stick and will help to ward off infection.

Honey: A natural antiseptic but not a definitive pain killer.

Toothpaste: Do not use this. Toothpaste contains menthol, which may provide only superficial relief. It can also be unhygienic and may cause infection.

Sources: Mr Steve Carroll, Ms Lin Qun, British Red Cross.

HOW TO TREAT MINOR BURNS

1. Cool the affected area under running water or soak in cool water for 15 to 20 minutes to dissipate the heat at the affected area or until the pain lessens.

2. Cover the burnt area with sterile gauze (available at most community pharmacies and hospitals) but avoid wrapping it too tightly as too much pressure could be placed on the area. Minor burns will usually heal without treatment. You may also apply skin protectants such as petrolatum - Vaseline cream, for example - on the area to reduce any friction and abrasion.

3. You may consider applying an antiseptic product if the skin is broken to prevent any infection. Povidone iodine and chlorhexidine are examples of commonly available antiseptics. If the skin is not broken, such as a sunburn, you can apply some hydrocortisone steroid cream (this can be purchased from pharmacists) to reduce the itch.

4. If there are blisters, do not break them. Their function is to protect the skin underneath from further damage or any infection.

5. If necessary, take some pain-relief medication such as paracetamol (if you are not allergic to it), to reduce the pain.

6. Check for any signs of infection, such as increased pain and inflammation, increased redness or swelling and oozing of pus. If the burn does not heal after seven days, see a doctor.

Source: Ms Lin Qun, senior pharmacist at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

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