Recently while on vacation, my hand and arm got quite swollen and inflamed from two bug bites. A friend suggested a family folk remedy of placing crushed garlic under a bandage directly on the swollen areas to excise the toxins from the bites. Since icing it and taking antihistamines for a day wasn't doing much, I agreed to the suggestion. I blame my lack of judgment on the 97 degree Southwestern desert heat and the pain and heat from the swelling. Within the first half hour, I felt a burning sensation where the garlic was and assumed it must be working. However, after almost three hours, things didn't seem quite right when my hand became even more inflamed.
Well, long story short, I suffered minor second-degree "garlic burns" on the two sites where the compress were. Symptoms included blistering, heat, and redness. The doctors prescribed oral antibiotics for the possibly infected bites and a topical antibiotic (bactroban cream) for the cellulitis. When I finally got hold of a computer, I ran a quick PubMed search and found that there have only been a few cases of garlic burns reported in the medical literature. The first was reported in 1987.
What I learned from the literature about garlic:
* It has allergens and irritants - the strongest are diallyl disulfide and allicin that are volatile sulfur compounds and can cause irritant contact dermatitis ('garlic burns').
* It can interfere with proper coagulation. It 's suggested that patients should stop eating garlic/taking garlic tablets at least one week before their surgery.
* Garlic burns have occurred in cases where garlic was directly applied to the skin to try to treat asthma, skin lesions, and fever.
* If properly treated with prescription topical antibiotic cream three times a day and covered with sterile gauze, wounds should heal within four weeks or so.
* Three soldiers who apparently did know of the harsh effects of crushed garlic on skin caused self-inflicted wounds on their legs and arms in order to avoid military duty.
So what did I learn from this experience?
(1) Do NOT use or take alternative medical treatment, or any medical treatment for that matter, without knowing what its risks, side effects, and reactions can be.
(2) The body is an amazing machine to be able to heal itself. My skin has repaired itself in a little over a month's time.
So here is my public service announcement to everyone: GARLIC is to be ingested in moderation and NOT applied to the skin.
Know how to handle burn injuries.
Find out more about garlic and its health benefits and risks.
FYI - after the skin has healed, sunblock should be applied to it for at least a year since the new skin is more photosensitive.
Borrelli, F, Capasso, R, & Izzo, AA. (2007). Garlic (Allium sativum L.): adverse effects and drug interactions in humans. Molecular nutrition & food research, 51(11), 1386-97. (PMID: 17918162)
Al-Qattan, MM. Garlic burns: Case reports with an emphasis on associated and underlying pathology. Burns (2008) (PMID: 18406535)