Despite recent medical advances, severe burns remain exceptionally hard to treat. Even when the wound seems well on the way to healing, infections can prove devastating. It's possible, however, that in the search for high-tech solutions doctors have missed an exceptionally easy answer in the form of vitamin D supplementation.
At the Institute of Inflammation & Aging, Birmingham, Professor Janet Lord and Dr Khaled Al Tarrah thought the known antibacterial properties of vitamin D might help fend off such infections. Moreover, given the extraordinary variety of benefits we are finding the vitamin provides, why wouldn't there be one more?
Lord and Al Tarrah observed the recovery of people with severe burns over a period of a year, while measuring vitamin D levels in their blood. They presented their findings at the annual conference of the Society for Endocrinology, held in Harrogate, UK.
Serious burns victims being, fortunately, relatively rare, the study had a sample size of just 38, but that was sufficient to produce statistically significant results.
Those patients with higher levels of vitamin D did better in every way. "Low vitamin D levels were associated with worse outcomes in burn patients including life-threatening infections, mortality and delayed wound healing. It was also associated with worse scarring but vitamin D levels are something generally overlooked by clinicians,” Lord said in a statement.
Modern indoor lifestyles mean most people get far less exposure to sunlight than our ancestors, reducing our main source of vitamin D. International migration patterns have had a role too, with people who have moved to less sunny locations often not realizing they need to compensate for the reduced exposure. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of skin-cancer awareness campaigns has meant that many people in sunnier location have overshot the mark in terms of covering up or wearing sunscreens. Vitamin D supplements, either in the diet or through injections, are an effective solution, but few people are aware they need them.
The problem is even worse for burns victim, the authors found. "Major burn injury severely reduces vitamin D levels,” Lord reported.
So far Lord and Al Tarrah's work just establishes low vitamin D levels as a risk factor, they haven't yet tested whether supplements help. For that, they will need to do clinical trials. However, simply having shown that burns deplete vitamin D levels suggests those who are suffering from burns could suffer secondary effects from the lack of vitamin D for other organs. This is something hospitals may miss while focusing on more immediate issues, but should certainly be easy to address.