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The Straight Dope



As a child I was told that the best way to treat a minor burn was to hold a piece of ice against it, and to this day I'm convinced it works. Uniced burns redden and swell, while iced ones often leave no mark at all. But judging from the reactions I get when I explain this medical miracle to others, you'd think I was using garlic to ward off vampires. Please, Cecil, tell me this isn't just some silly superstition and that putting ice on burns really works. Also, what's the word on using aloe for burns and scrapes? I think it helps but am not about to say so without authoritative support--if people think ice is weird, imagine what they'll make of mysterious plant ointments. --Beth, Chicago

Yeah, witchcraft trials can be such a hassle. You're safe with me, though. Clinical studies have shown that cold (although not ice per se, for fear of frostbite) can speed burn healing significantly. It's not unreasonable to suppose that in minor cases it may prevent reddening and swelling altogether. Aloe works, too. So there.

One of the more striking demonstrations of the usefulness of "water cooling," as it's called in trauma circles, was provided by a doctor in (appropriately) Iceland named O.J. Ofeigsson, who wrote several articles in the 1960s touting the benefits of cooling. He reported the case of a 40-year-old woman who at age two had badly burned her right arm from hand to armpit with boiling milk. Someone had had the presence of mind to put the little girl's arm into a bucket of cold water immediately--but only up to the elbow. Thirty-eight years later the woman's arm from the elbow down was fine but her upper arm was disfigured by deep scars.

You might be thinking: Come on, doc, you didn't see her until 38 years later, how do you know what really happened when she was two? Well, OK. But animal studies--studies in which animals were intentionally burned, I feel obliged to note--suggest the woman's story could be legit. Animals whose burns were immersed in ice water within 30 minutes after occurrence and kept there for a half hour healed much more quickly and thoroughly than those where soaking had been delayed for an hour or put off altogether.

Why does cooling burns work? Doctors aren't sure, but studies suggest cooling prevents the tiny blood vessels in the skin from clogging, inhibits dehydration, and slows the formation of certain harmful chemicals. The point is, it works.

Dabbing aloe vera juice on a burn, scrape, or other minor skin injury also seems to speed up healing. Nobody's sure why aloe works, either, but like cooling it seems to prevent formation of harmful chemicals and kills bacteria besides.

Not every folk remedy is so salubrious. Ever been told to dab a burn with butter? Don't. Butter isn't sterile and you'll just increase the chances of infection.

I was sitting here happily reading the Straight Dope when I got this very scary thought. I realized that the only two things I read are the sports pages and your column and nothing else. My question is, should I panic and start reading all 20 volumes of the encyclopedia? Should I give up "Cecil" and just stick to sports? Or should I relax knowing that you will keep me up to date and informed on everything I'll ever need to know? --Brad S., Jacksonville, Florida

No question we put out an informative product, Brad, but you should realize there are certain aspects of learning to which we give short shrift. I would hate to turn myself over to a brain surgeon, for example, whose entire knowledge of the subject had been picked up reading the Straight Dope on the bus. (Although I'm sure he'd be a font of droll remarks at the inquest.) For further reading, assuming you've already got the Baseball Encyclopedia memorized (doesn't everybody?), I'd suggest the complete Aristotle, a subscription to People, and, of course, a good book on quantum mechanics. I recommend Quantum Mechanics: A First Course, by B. Cameron Reed (1990), mainly because it quotes in full my epic poem on Schroedinger's cat (no lie), which has inspired a generation of physicists. Read it and you won't be at a loss next time the barroom banter turns to Planck's constant.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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