Wound care should be an important part of your first aid preparedness training. After all, what may be a harmless paper cut by today’s standards could set the stage for infection in a less sanitary environment. Furthermore, if access to higher medical care were interrupted, there would be no ambulance or life flight, and maybe even no emergency room, to provide care for more serious wounds and injuries.
First aid for wounds covers many different aspects. Especially in a SHTF scenario, you would need to know how to safely control bleeding, assess the injury to gauge extent of the damage, and be able to clean the wound and prevent infection. Wilderness first aid or first responder training can be invaluable because there is so much to learn on this topic. Being able to learn from an instructor in these courses is also extremely helpful- they will correct any errors you might make and often have a great deal of personal experience to make the material more relatable.
In long term scenarios with no higher medical care, the prevention of infection becomes a crucial step in the healing process. By using herbs to encourage healthy wound healing and support the immune system, you have a back-up plan in case medical supplies run short.
There are five basic types of herbs to keep in mind for herbal wound support: Hemostatics that curb excessive bleeding; anti-inflammatory herbs for healthy inflammation response; proliferative herbs that help with scabbing and the formation of new skin; anti-pathogenics that help minimize contamination of the wounds, and lymphatic herbs that support a healthy immune response. We will also briefly cover helpful pain relieving herbs.
Let’s take a look at the five main groups of herbs for wound care:
Most herbs that have hemostatic properties are classified as astringents in traditional herbalism. These are herbs with a reputation for drawing up and tightening tissues, and drying up excessive fluids of all types. Traditional wound herbs utilized for their hemostatic properties include the leaves and flowers of shepherd’s purse, oak bark, wild geranium root, yarrow leaf and/or flower, raspberry or blackberry leaf or blackberry root, and chaparral leaf.
White oak and English oak are the two “official” oak species used in herbal medicine, but all oaks exhibit a high level of tannins and can be used interchangeable for their astringency. These herbs may be prepared as an infusion or decoction and applied as a wash, or if an extract is available it can be diluted in water and applied equally well. These herbs are also beneficial for oozing or weepy wounds or sores.
These herbs may be applied topically alone or as part of a formula to encourage excessive inflammation to return to normal. Inflammation is a natural part of the healing process, but if the wound is large these herbs can help with comfort during the healing process, and help the tissue recover from pain and swelling. Several of them can also be found under the antipathogenic category, and under pain relievers. Examples of herbal anti-inflammatories include willow, meadowsweet, chaparral, lobelia, self heal, comfrey, plantain, birch, alder, aspen, poplar, and turmeric.
Herbs that encourage the growth of healthy tissue during the growth process are also important. Chaparral, comfrey, horsetail, plantain, calendula, and aloe are great examples of this type of herb. It’s important to use proliferatives judiciously over deep wounds, as they can promote healing of the top layers of the epidermis before the wound has healed completely underneath. This could set the stage for infection. Be sure that the wound is clean and has started to heal well internally and that there is no chance of infection before using them.
Comfrey and calendula can promote healthy tissue growth when there is a concern that scar tissue could be damaging. These herbs have a traditional reputation for helping a wound to heal with minimal scarring. Elecampane root can be beneficial when there is “proud flesh,” meaning the wound is having difficulty forming a healthy scab (7). Stinging nettle can be taken internally as a tea, or eaten as a steamed green, during the healing process as this herb supplies micro-nutrients and protein that support the healing process (2,4).
Antipathogenics are herbs that help keep the wound clean from bacterial contamination. Note that these are not going to behave in the same manner as an internal, systemic antibiotic. They need to be applied topically. Chaparral, plantain, acacia, aloe, echinacea, goldenseal, and sida are examples here. Even though goldenseal is listed, it’s important to understand that the berberine content in goldenseal does its best work topically. It’s not well absorbed into the bloodstream from the gut.
Learn More: If you would like to read more about the few herbs that do seem to have a systemic anti-pathogenic effect, you can visit my blog to read this article on Herbal Antibiotics: What You Really Need To Know. But you also need to learn about herbal lymphatics.
Because there are very few herbs that have a systemic action approaching modern antibiotics, we turn to another staple in the prepared herbalist’s medicinals kit: Herbal lymphatics. These herbs work with our bodies to support the effectiveness of our immunity through our lymphatic system. If you’ve ever experienced swollen lymph glands during a fever or infection, you know first hand how hard these glands work during an immune system challenge.
Herbal lymphatics promote the movement of lymph and the ability of the body to drain off and process the byproducts of infection. Poke root, blue flag, echinacea, red root, boneset, and cleavers are herbs in this class. Alteratives, or blood purifiers, such as burdock and red clover, can support lymphatic herbs. Lymphatics can be applied as compresses over swollen lymph glands, but it is usually more practical to take them internally. Poke and blue flag are generally used in small amounts, even only a few drops at a time, due to their potency and potential toxicity. Cleavers is a very safe lymphatic that may also be eaten as a steamed green.
Herbal Support for Pain
The last topic we need to cover for herbal wound care is the problem of pain. Everyone has a different pain tolerance, but the topic of pain should be taken seriously during wound care in a SHTF scenario. Pain places more stress on an already stressed system, and can interfere with sleep and appetite. Adequate rest and nutrition are important for healing in any scenario, but especially in an emergency situation where no higher care is available. The same can be said for managing stress in what is most likely a very stressful environment to begin with. Herbs that have a tradition of use for pain include Jamaica dogwood (1), meadowsweet, willow, and black cohosh (5).
Applying Herbs in a Wound Care Scenario
In addition to knowing first aid skills and what herbs to use, you also need to know how to use the herbs. Now that you have a basic understanding of the types of herbs that could be used for wound care, you may still be curious about how the herbs would be applied.
As a general rule, the two most practical herbal preparations in any SHTF scenario are going to be extracts (sometimes called tinctures); and infusions or decoctions. Extracts are made by soaking herbal material in alcohol (if made at home, it’s common to use Everclear mixed with water or vodka), which preserves the herbs and pulls the beneficial components into the liquid. Teas made with herbs are known as infusions (for fresh or dried leaves and flowers) and decoctions (for fresh or dried roots, barks, and seeds). Both types of preparations have the flexibility of either external or internal use (depending on the herb). Extracts are most commonly used internally, but may be diluted in a small amount of water to create a wash or applied without dilution if needed.
Some of the herbs listed above, like Jamaican dogwood, poke root, and chaparral, are at one end of the herbal safety spectrum and are called for in only small amounts at a time. Herbs like burdock and cleavers fall on the opposite end of the spectrum and are safe enough to be foraged as food. Most fall somewhere in the middle, but it’s important that you become familiar with each herb you plan to use during emergency situations so that you understand the plant’s unique profile as well as how much to use.