Summertime’s Natural Toolbox

Dr. Lawrence Rosen

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” If only our children paid heed to Ben Franklin’s famous adage. Parents and pediatricians spend a lot of time counseling young ones to be careful, and we slather them with sunscreen and insect repellent to try and limit the effects of outdoor exposure during the summer months. Short of covering our kids from head to toe in SPF-70 bubble-wrap, there’s not much more we can do. From time to time, children get hurt. Summer is the peak time for bites and stings, cuts and bruises, and sunburns. Conventional options include over-the-counter (OTC) lotions, creams and ointments for pain relief, but it turns out that some of these products can cause unpleasant adverse effects.

For example, a FDA warning about benzocaine, a common additive to topical medications for pain relief, urged us not to use these products in young children due to a rare but serious adverse effect called “methemoglobinemia.” Essentially, benzocaine toxicity can result in decreased oxygen capacity in red blood cells, causing respiratory and cardiovascular problems. No sunburn relief is worth that, believe me. Even more alarming, many conventional OTC teething gels for babies contain benzocaine. What alternatives do parents have?

When the FDA warned us about the use of OTC cough-and-cold medications in young children, many parents turned to homeopathic medicines. The same approach is warranted in place of benzocaine products, given the safety record of homeopathics for all of the conditions mentioned above. For example, for teething, parents have several options of homeopathic teething solutions or tablets that include dilutions of chamomile and other soothing herbs. It’s important to remember a basic principle of homeopathic medicine, the Law of Similars or “like cures like.” Simply put but poorly understood, a substance that causes symptoms at “full strength” (i.e. onions cause red and watery eyes and nose secretions) can be used to treat that condition in homeopathic dilutions (highly diluted Allium cepa – a.k.a. onion – is used to treat seasonal allergy symptoms). Typically, in classical homeopathy, specific remedies are matched to individuals for specific constitutions, but in this case, we are discussing homeopathy in a more “user-friendly” symptom-based clinical manner that allows families to develop a home toolbox of remedies for common conditions. There is much debate about the efficacy and mechanism of action of homeopathic medicines, but there is really no argument about safety, even in conventional medical circles.

Here are some specific tips for common summer ailments:

For insect bites and stings, I recommend Apis mellifica, from the honeybee. Remember, like cures like. For acute use, the 30c strength is optimal, and you can give 3 to 5 pellets as frequently as needed for symptom relief. Often for very acute use, remedies are given every 15 minutes for the first hour, then hourly for the next few hours, and gradually reduced as needed over the next day or so. You cannot overdose on homeopathic medicines.

For bruises, try Arnica montana, derived from the daisy family and also known as “wound herb.” Arnica can be applied topically in ointment form or can be taken orally (under the tongue) for more severe injuries. For children who cannot or will not put the tablets under their tongues, you can dissolve the pellets in water and let them sip gradually over a few hours. In general, you can continue to administer the remedy three times a day until healed.

For sunburns and minor skin abrasions, go with Calendula officinalis, which comes from the marigold. I’ve recommended it for many skin rashes and irritations, including baby diaper dermatitis. Published studies support the potent wound healing capabilities of Calendula. You can apply topically as needed, and it comes in ointment, cream and gel formulations.

In the end, remember that prevention is still preferable to treatment, even if we have safe natural options. For sunscreen, I encourage you to check out the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Sunscreen Guide, looking for products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide active ingredients and avoiding endocrine-disrupting chemicals like oxybenzone. As for insect repellents, those made from natural essential oils are preferable to those containing DEET, a neurotoxin. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database provides helpful information on safer bug sprays. Now go outside and play!

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