The Everything Guide to Herbal Remedies: An easy-to-use reference for natural health care

CHAPTER 14

Emergencies and First Aid

Accidents will happen—and probably when you least expect them. Accidents and unintentional injuries send more than 30 million Americans to the doctor’s office each year and close to the same number to the emergency room. Lots of mishaps occur at home (cuts and burns are common household injuries) and in the great outdoors (think insect bites and stings, ankle twists, and sunburns). Luckily, herbs offer lots of emergency aid, helping to relieve pain and other unpleasant symptoms and speed recovery.

Hurry! Do Something!

Unlike chronic illnesses, accidents and injuries are sudden, often unexpected, and require immediate action. First aid is just what its name implies: the immediate assistance given to an injured or sick person. Perhaps the most important part of first aid is being prepared—having the tools and skills you need to assess the situation, determine the best course of action (treat the problem yourself or call for help), and then follow it.

Conventional medicine recommends that you keep some basics on hand, including these:


• Antiseptic solution, like hydrogen peroxide, providone-iodine (Betadine), or benzalkonium chloride (Bactine), to clean wounds and kill germs

• Antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin/neomycin/polymyxin B (Neosporin), to prevent infection in cuts and other superficial skin injuries

• Antidiarrheal medication, such as loperamide (Imodium) or bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol)

• Over-the-counter (OTC) oral antihistamine like loratadine (Claritin) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl), to stop itching

• OTC oral pain reliever (analgesic), such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil)

• OTC topical anesthetic, like lidocaine (Topicaine) or benzocaine (Solarcaine, Americaine), to stop pain and/or itching

• OTC topical anti-inflammatory/anti-itch remedy, such as hydrocortisone (Cortaid) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl), to stop itching

• Insect repellant made with N-diethyl-meta-toluamide (DEET) or permethrin, found in Off! and Repel brands, to keep biting insects away


You’ll most likely buy the same types of products whether you use conventional or herbal items to stock your first-aid kit. But choosing herb-based instead of chemical-laden supplies can be very helpful—both for you and the person you’re assisting.

For example:

• Topical antibiotics can cause skin reactions and (more alarming) contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

• Topical antiseptics can inhibit wound healing if used long term (large doses of providone-iodine can interfere with thyroid functioning). Benzalkonium chloride can irritate skin, lungs, and mucous membranes.

• Conventional antidiarrheal meds can cause constipation and cramping and may interact with other drugs.

• Oral antihistamines can cause weakness, irregular heartbeat, headaches, and nervousness.

• Acetaminophen can cause liver damage (especially if you regularly drink alcohol or coffee); aspirin and other NSAIDS can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, stomach and intestinal damage, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and heart problems.

• Topical pain relievers can cause swelling, skin irritation, and irregular heartbeat.

• Topical itch remedies can cause a variety of side effects: Corticosteroids can cause skin reactions and can also impair wound healing and increase your chances of infection; antihistamines can cause redness, swelling, and other skin problems.

• Chemical insect repellants are neurotoxins and have been linked to skin and neurological reactions. Combining DEET with a chemical sunscreen can increase the amount of DEET that’s absorbed into your skin, which can be toxic.

Bismuth subsalicylate is the key ingredient in Pepto-Bismol, one of the bestselling OTC drugs in the United States. It’s an effective remedy for nausea, diarrhea, and heartburn, but it can interact dangerously with many other drugs, including prescription blood thinners, pain relievers, and diabetes drugs as well as nonprescription pain and cold medicines.

Herbal Alternatives

In contrast to the pharmaceuticals in an average medicine cabinet, herbal first-aid remedies are generally free of side effects and in many cases perform as well or even better than the commercial drugs.

Compared to the conventional medicines that are based on a single active chemical, herbs contain many constituents. In fact, some experts think that it’s this synergy that makes plant medicines superior to drugs made in a lab. Because they have so many compounds acting at once, they’re much less likely to cause the side effects you see when you’ve got a single foreign agent in the body.

Garlic (Allium sativum) is a staple in any herbal first-aid kit. It’s a classic remedy for cuts and other abrasions, and modern research has confirmed its antimicrobial and wound-healing properties. Garlic extracts are also good at preventing or minimizing scars—and they’re the key ingredient in the OTC scar medicine Mederma—and even work as a bug repellant.

Herbs can also outperform conventional remedies that incorporate more than one active ingredient, such as the first-aid sprays that combine a pain-relieving agent with an infection-fighting chemical, because the herb is almost always kinder to the skin. There are certainly herbs capable of doing harm, but the ones that have been used, time and time again, to treat injuries have been proven to be safe and effective (and generally side effect-free) remedies.

Most herbs contain hundreds of chemical constituents, or phytochemicals, many of which have therapeutic or medicinal value to humans. In many cases, the various constituents in an herb fit perfectly with the first-aid task at hand. For example, a burn might require pain relief as well as a reduction in inflammation and thus would be well served by an herb with both analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, like calendula (Calendula officinalis) or chamomile (Matricaria recutita).

A cut or scrape could also use some antibacterial action, so you might use barberry (Berberis vulgaris) or tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia), both of which can effectively relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and kill germs. Or maybe you have an injury that needs a styptic (something to stop bleeding) as well. In that case, you can reach for aloe (Aloe vera) or horsetail (Equisetum arvense).

Bumps and Bruises

When your body suffers an impact, it can leave a contusion or hematoma (also known as a plain old bruise), which involves localized discoloration, swelling, and inflammation. If you take a fall or bump into something hard enough, the tiny blood vessels just under the skin will rupture, and your skin will develop the telltale black-and-blue color as blood leaks into the surrounding tissues and gets trapped there.

In most cases, bruises are not a big deal and will clear up within a couple weeks. However, if you experience severe pain and swelling, see a health care provider, as this may be a sign of a more serious injury. You also should see a doctor if you sustain a black eye that’s accompanied by bleeding within the eye, which can cause serious damage to your cornea (the transparent outer surface of your eye).

Conventional and Herbal Answers

Conventional medicine typically treats bruises, bumps, and other injuries that don’t break the skin with OTC meds: oral analgesics and NSAIDs, which can cause gastrointestinal problems, and topical painkillers, which can cause skin irritation and other side effects. Several herbs have been used traditionally, both internally and topically, to treat bruises:

• Arnica (Arnica montana)

Arnica is the classic European herb for bruises and muscle aches and is used as a conventional herbal treatment (for topical application only) as well as a homeopathic remedy, which is extremely dilute (homeopathic preparations are the only safe way to use arnica internally). Studies show it has anti-inflammatory and anticlotting effects, meaning it can reduce swelling and speed the body’s efforts to clear away trapped blood.

• Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

Comfrey is a time-honored topical treatment for bruises (especially the deeper ones that affect muscle fibers). Modern research shows it can improve the pain and tenderness of contusions and muscle injuries.

• Turmeric (Curcuma longa)

Turmeric relieves inflammation—and the pain and swelling that goes with it—thanks to its chemical constituent curcumin. It’s used externally to treat bruises and other skin and muscle injuries.

Burns and Sunburns

A burn is an injury to the skin that can be caused by several things, including heat, chemicals, radiation (such as sun exposure), and electricity. Most burns are minor—you’ve accidentally touched a hot stove or spent too much time in the sun—and can be treated at home.

Doctors classify burns according to the amount of damage they’ve caused. A first-degree burn affects just the top layer of skin (the epidermis) and is by far the most common type. A first-degree burn will be red and painful and will blanch (turn white) when you press on it. It may swell a bit and might peel within a day or two, and will probably heal within a week.

Your risk for sunburn depends on the time of day and year (sunburns are more likely on summer days, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.), your latitude and altitude (being closer to the equator and farther from sea level means more radiation), and what you’re doing (skiing and swimming are done around water and snow, which reflect burning rays).

Second-degree burns affect more layers of skin. The skin will blister and be red and swollen, and will take a few weeks to heal. (These burns are more prone to infection, so you should probably see your health care provider.) Third-degree burns, the most severe, affect all layers of the skin and possibly other tissues as well, and take months to heal. These burns always require medical attention.

Sunburn is a type of radiation burn caused by UV, or ultraviolet, light. You can get one from a tanning bed or booth as well as from the real thing.

Most often, sunburns are minor (first-degree burns) that make you uncomfortable for a day or so. Occasionally, you can get a second-degree burn from sun exposure, meaning blistering, more pain, and a longer recovery time.

Conventional remedies for minor burns include topical anesthetics/analgesics and oral pain relievers such as NSAIDs. Burns that might get infected are treated with topical antiseptics and antibiotics, which can inhibit healing and cause skin reactions. Here are some herbal alternatives:

• Aloe (Aloe vera)

The gel from this cactus-like plant is legendary as a burn remedy. Research shows it improves circulation in superficial blood vessels, inhibits inflammation, and promotes tissue repair.

• Calendula (Calendula officinalis)

Calendula, a.k.a. the marigold, has both astringent and anti-inflammatory properties and is another classic burn remedy. Studies show it also has antiedemic, analgesic, and wound-healing properties.

• Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)

The essential oil of lavender is a gentle anesthetic and anti-inflammatory with real skin-healing powers. Research shows it can relieve swelling and pain in minor burns.

• Saint John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)

Saint John’s wort is used topically to treat burns and other superficial skin injuries. It possesses antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory constituents, and research shows it can modulate the immune response to burn injury in order to speed healing. (Ironically, taking Saint John’s wort orally can increase your susceptibility to sunburn, so be sure to use sunblock.)

• Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Witch hazel is a cooling, soothing remedy for burns (and all types of cuts, scrapes, and other skin injuries). Research shows it can reduce skin inflammation in sunburned people. It also works as a styptic (it stops bleeding).

The Travails of Travel

Hitting the road (or the water or skies) can mean big adventure—and big health issues, too. For some people, just the act of flying or riding in a moving car or boat can bring on nausea. For others, new foods (and new bacteria and other pathogens) can spell disaster. Or it could be the altitude that does them in.

Travelers’ Tummies

Some people develop traveler’s diarrhea when they venture away from home. The condition generally lasts just a few days—if yours goes on for more than a week (or if you become dehydrated), talk to a doctor. Many cases are caused by microbial infection (also known as food poisoning), which often includes vomiting along with diarrhea.

When you’re traveling, look for dishes prepared with these culinary herbs: oregano (Origanum vulgare), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), thyme (Thymus vulgaris), clove (Syzygium aromaticum), and cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum). Research has shown that they all possess antimicrobial action that can kill many foodborne pathogens.

Vomiting can also be caused by motion sickness (a.k.a. seasickness), which happens when your inner sense of balance gets thrown out of whack. Most cases will resolve themselves, but if you’re experiencing other symptoms (such as vomiting blood or severe pain), see a doctor.

Conventional antidiarrheal medications include loperamide (Imodium) and bismuth subsalicylate (Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol), both sold over the counter. Loperamide can cause constipation and cramping. Bismuth subsalicylate can interact with other drugs (including OTC pain relievers and cold medicines) and can exacerbate ulcers. Motion sickness is treated prophylactically with antihistamines—OTC drugs like meclizine (Bonine) or dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) or prescriptions like scopolamine (Transderm Scop)—which can cause sedation and headaches. Nausea and vomiting are treated with OTC antiemetic (antinausea) drugs like bismuth subsalicylate. Here are some herbal alternatives:

• American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

American ginseng is known for its antinausea abilities. Research has shown that it can prevent nausea and vomiting before they start (without the side effects of conventional motion sickness meds).

• Ginger (Zingiber officinale)

This is a classic herbal remedy for nausea (including motion sickness), diarrhea, and other gastric complaints. In the lab, it’s been shown to relieve cramping and kill foodborne Salmonellabacteria. Ginger is also available almost anywhere—it’s used as both a medicine and a spice throughout the world.

• Juniper (Juniperus communis)

This traditional Native American digestive remedy contains several chemicals with antidiarrheal and antimicrobial properties.

• Psyllium (Plantago ovata, P. psyllium)

Psyllium, which is best known as a constipation remedy, is also an effective antidiarrheal. In the lab, it’s been proven as effective as the drug loperamide, without the side effects.

Altitude Sickness

If you travel to an altitude that’s significantly higher than what you’re used to, you might develop altitude sickness, a condition that can involve headaches, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, and stomach upset. At higher altitudes, lower air pressure and less oxygen can create hypoxia, or a shortage of oxygen reaching your tissues, triggering problems in your brain, blood vessels, and lungs.

Different people experience altitude sickness at different elevations, many starting at around 6,000 feet above sea level. In most cases, altitude sickness gets better on its own, as you get acclimated to the elevation (or climb back down again). But extreme cases can result in serious problems, even coma and death.

Conventional doctors sometimes prescribe the drug acetazolamide (Acetazolamide) to prevent and treat altitude sickness, but its side effects include nausea and vomiting. Herbs offer a simpler solution:

• Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)

Used for centuries in Chinese medicine as an adaptogen—an herb that can help the body deal with stress—Asian ginseng can lessen the effects of altitude (specifically, the shortage of oxygen and extreme temperatures).

• Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Ginkgo boosts circulation throughout the body, especially to the brain, and can increase tolerance for low-oxygen environments. Research shows it can significantly reduce altitude sickness symptoms, including headache, fatigue, and respiratory difficulties.

• Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

This medicinal mushroom is another Asian adaptogen and altitude aid. Research suggests that reishi extracts improve the body’s consumption and use of oxygen and prevent the damage caused by hypoxia.

Scrapes, Cuts, and Other Abrasions

You can injure your skin anywhere: wielding a knife in the kitchen, shuffling papers in the office, or playing with your kids in the park. You also can develop blisters—fluid-filled pouches of skin created by friction—when hiking on vacation or just wearing a new pair of shoes around your neighborhood. Whenever you break the structural integrity of your body’s outermost layer, you’re damaging skin (and possibly nerves and muscle fibers) and opening the door to infection.

Minor abrasions can be taken care of with a little soap and water and perhaps a bandage. Wounds that are bleeding (or hurt) a lot might require stronger measures. And if the bleeding doesn’t stop after a few minutes or if the would is very big and/or deep, you should see a doctor.

Conventional medicine typically treats minor skin injuries with topical antiseptics like hydrogen peroxide, topical anesthetics like benzocaine, topical antibiotics such as bacitracin/neomycin/polymyxin B, and oral pain relievers like acetaminophen or NSAIDs. Here are some herbal alternatives:

• Barberry (Berberis vulgaris)

Barberry contains the chemical berberine, which has strong antimicrobial and painkilling action. Berberine is also found in goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis).

• Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Eucalyptus oil contains antimicrobial, analgesic, anesthetic, and antiseptic constituents, so it can relieve pain and prevent infection.

• Gotu kola (Centella asiatica)

A natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, gotu kola is used throughout India and much of Asia to treat wounds and skin infections. Modern research shows it stimulates new cell growth and the production of collagen, the major protein in skin and connective tissue, which speeds healing and minimizes scarring.

• Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Horsetail is an analgesic, astringent, antiseptic, and styptic (it stops bleeding) and has been used for centuries by Native Americans to treat superficial skin injuries. In the lab, it’s shown antimicrobial action against Streptococcus and other types of bacteria and fungi that can infect wounds.

• Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marshmallow contains antibacterial and anti-inflammatory constituents. It soothes irritated and damaged skin and forms a protective layer to seal out germs and help the skin repair itself.

• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Topical applications of yarrow can stop bleeding, reduce inflammation, and prevent infection—like an herbal Band-Aid.

Although you’ll find it in practically any first-aid kit in America, hydrogen peroxide is not such a great antimicrobial—and it can actually delay healing of wounds and other skin abrasions. Even very low doses have been linked to neurological, respiratory, and gastrointestinal problems (and high doses have been linked to cancer).

Sprains and Strains

Sprains and strains can strike almost anyone: athletes, weekend warriors, and travelers. A sprain is an injury to the ligaments, which attach muscle to bone; a strain is an injury to a tendon, which attaches a muscle to another muscle, or to the muscle itself.

If you sprain something (the most common site for a sprain is the ankle), you might hear a popping sound, but you’ll definitely experience almost immediate swelling and pain. If you’ve strained a muscle or tendon (what many people call a “pulled muscle”), you’ll feel immediate pain, and, over the next few hours, increasing stiffness and possible swelling. Both types of injury occur when the tissue is pulled past its normal range of motion and is either stretched or torn in the process.

Both sprains and strains can be handled at home, unless they are very painful or prevent you from walking or moving the injured area at all. Conventional medicine generally uses OTC pain relievers and anti-inflammatories.

Very painful injuries might be treated with a prescription-strength topical NSAID such as diclofenac (Flector Patch), which can cause skin reactions like itching and burning. Here are some herbal alternatives:

• Arnica (Arnica montana)

Arnica is a classic remedy for soft-tissue (muscle) injuries. It’s used topically (as an ointment or cream) and orally (as a homeopathic remedy) and possesses both anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects. Research shows it can reduce pain and inflammation in patients following surgical reconstruction of knee ligaments.

• Comfrey (Symphytum officinale)

This herb is used topically to treat injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Recent research shows that a topical comfrey treatment reduced pain and swelling and restored mobility to sprained ankles better than the prescription NSAID diclofenac.

• Pineapple (Ananas comosus)

Pineapples contain the enzyme bromelain, which works as an antiinflammatory. Research shows it can reduce swelling, bruising, pain, and healing time following injury or trauma.

Itching and Scratching

Plenty of things you encounter both at home and away can cause irritation and itching: bites and stings from insects as well as an inadvertent brush against a toxic plant. Other times, itchy skin is the result of an allergic reaction (see Chapter 9). Most often, it’s just a case of bad luck: being near the wrong bug (or bush) at the wrong time.

Several popular culinary herbs and spices contain chemicals with serious bug-repellant powers. Recent studies have shown that extracts of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum, C. aromaticum), clove (Syzygium aromaticum),fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), and ginger (Zingiber officinale) can keep mosquitoes, ticks, and other insects away.

Poison ivy, oak, and sumac contain oils that can cause an itchy, red rash, often involving blisters (you can even have a reaction if you touch something—an article of clothing, even your dog’s fur—that’s touched the plant, or if you inhale smoke from a fire that contains it).

Several species of bugs—including bees, wasps, and hornets—can sting you, leaving behind venom and sometimes a stinger, plus a welt that’s itchy or painful or both. Biting insects, such as ticks, spiders, fleas, and mosquitoes, like to take away something (usually a bit of blood), and leave a bit of saliva that creates a reaction (usually itching and inflammation) in return.

Treatment Options

Conventional medicine typically treats these problems with OTC anesthetics and anti-inflammatory/anti-itch medicines such as corticosteroids and antihistamines. Herbal alternatives include these:

• Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea)

Used topically, echinacea is a mild anesthetic and antiseptic that fights infection and speeds healing. In the lab, it’s been shown to reduce inflammation and swelling better than a topical NSAID.

• Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus)

Eucalyptus oil works as a topical antiseptic and painkiller; it can relieve pain and itching, speed healing, and prevent infection.

• Sangre de Grado (Croton lechleri)

This South American tree is known for its anti-inflammatory and woundhealing prowess. Research shows it can relieve the pain and itching caused by all sorts of insects—including fire ants, wasps, and bees— and poisonous plants. It’s also good for treating cuts and scrapes.

• Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

A powerful astringent, witch hazel can dry up “weeping” rashes and create a virtual bandage over the area by sealing cell membranes and reducing the permeability of surrounding blood vessels. Research shows that it performs better than hydrogen peroxide in helping skin heal (it’s also a strong antimicrobial and antioxidant).

• Tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia)

Tea tree oil reduces histamine-induced (allergic) inflammation of the skin and can decrease the welt left from insect bites and stings. It also has antibacterial properties to help prevent infection.

Conventional insect repellants use chemicals such as N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, better known as DEET, to keep biting insects at bay. Products that contain the chemical permethrin, which is both a repellant and an insecticide, can be applied to your clothing and personal items.

DEET and permethrin can be toxic to people as well as insects, and research shows that they might cause neurological problems and most definitely cause skin reactions (permethrin is designed to be used on clothing only—not skin—and many experts advise saving the DEET for your clothes, too). Herbal alternatives include these:

• Camphor (Cinnamomum camphora)

Camphor (the herb) contains camphor (the chemical), which is a natural insect repellant. It’s also an effective pain and itch reliever (approved by the FDA), so you can also use it to treat bites you’ve already got.

• Lemon eucalyptus

The oil from this Australian native is registered with the Food and Drug

(Eucalyptus citriodora, Corymbia citriodora)

Administration and was recently approved as an insect repellant by the Centers for Disease Control.

• Neem (Azadirachta indica)

Topical neem preparations have been shown to repel several different species of mosquitoes.