10 Things to Know About Burns

  • nurse pouring water on patient's severe skin burn on index finger - possible 3rd degree burn
    How to Assess a Burn at Home—and When to See a Doctor
    When you think about burns, you might picture a painful sunburn (a type of radiation burn) or a mark on your hand from accidentally bumping against a hot oven rack—a thermal burn. But burns also can occur due to electricity (such as when a child inserts a metal object into an outlet) and chemical exposure. Mild burns can be managed at home, but some types of burns require medical intervention, even if you can’t see any evidence of a burn. Find out about different degrees of burns and how to treat burns at home—and when to see a doctor.

  • illustration of first-, second- and third-degree burn
    1. There are actually six degrees of burns.
    You may have heard of the three ‘degrees’ of burn severity: 1st, 2nd and 3rd. First-degree burns may be painful, but they are considered mild and don’t blister. Second-degree burns damage the entire top layer of skin (epidermis) and will blister. Third-degree burns destroy all the skin layers, down to the fat beneath, and usually look dry or leathery. Another term for a third-degree burn is a full-thickness burn. Fourth, fifth and sixth degree burns penetrate through the fat, muscle and bone, respectively. These types of burns are very serious and can be fatal. Seek immediate medical attention for serious burns of any degree, and for all electrical burns.

  • paramedic or nurse pouring water on man's arm burn
    2. You shouldn’t apply ice to burns.
    First- and second-degree burns that affect only a small area of skin can be managed at home. You may be tempted to apply ice packs to calm the pain, but don’t. The extreme coldness of ice against burned skin can restrict blood flow to the area and worsen the tissue damage. Instead, run cool water over a thermal burn for 15 to 20 minutes or apply cool-water compresses every 10 minutes or so for 30 minutes. This technique will alleviate the pain without making the damage worse. Flush chemical burns with water for 30 minutes, even for a small area. For more serious chemical burns call 911.

  • sunburn blisters on male back
    3. Sunburns may require medical attention.
    If you don’t apply sunscreen correctly (or if you fail to re-apply it timely), you or your child might wind up with a nasty sunburn. Usually a sunburn results in nothing more than discomfort, but if it causes blistering—especially over a large area of skin, such as the entire back—then you should see a doctor. Children with second-degree sunburns, especially, may benefit from medical management to avoid complications like dehydration. Otherwise, apply cool compresses or soothing aloe vera gel to the sunburn. It should heal within about a week.

  • little boy opening cupboard of cleaning products
    4. Burns can be invisible.
    Most people picture a burn as a skin wound, but burns can occur inside the body too, making them invisible. These burns can be caused through inhalation or ingestion of chemicals. Children, in particular, are vulnerable to internal burns caused by swallowing toxic substances. Symptoms of an internal chemical burn are vomiting (especially with blood), foaming around the mouth, or difficulty breathing. Call 911 if your child has these symptoms. Likewise, seek medical attention for coughing or difficulty breathing that don’t immediately subside after inhaling smoke or chemical fumes, as these can be signs of an internal burn.

  • man installing electrical outlet
    5. Electrical burns can affect both skin and internal tissues.
    Electrical shocks send about 30,000 people to the hospital each year, including children. Adults who get zapped while tinkering with their home electricity may not get burned, but children can be seriously injured by a house’s electrical current. Electrical shocks can cause external burns, such as blistered skin around the mouth if a child has chewed on a cord, but shocks also can damage internal tissue without leaving an external mark. Watch children closely after a known electrical shock and seek immediate medical attention (call 911) for symptoms, including seizures, loss of balance, passing out, or not breathing. Use first-aid techniques for the thermal burns.

  • woman with second degree burn, burn blister on wrist
    6. The amount of blistering can tell you how severe a burn is.
    To figure out how severe a burn is, use these general rules:

    • If the burn is pink to medium-red, with no blisters, it’s a first-degree burn.
    • If the burn causes a few blisters, it’s a mild second-degree burn.
    • If the burn area is dark red and glossy with many blisters, it’s a severe second-degree burn that requires medical attention.
    • If the burn area is not blistered but looks dark red, dry and leathery, and you can see that it penetrates well below the surface of the skin, then it’s a third-degree burn that requires medical attention.

  • rescue worker tending to patient with head trauma
    7. Serious face/neck burns require emergency care.
    When you experience a serious burn, the body mounts a large immune response that can cause swelling in the local tissue. That immune response can be problematic when the burn occurs on the face or neck, because swelling in these areas can make it impossible for a person to breathe. If someone experiences a serious burn to the face or neck that causes swelling or difficulty breathing, call 911 for immediate medical attention.

  • emergency room treatment of senior man's skin burn on forearm
    8. Burns in infants and the elderly can be life threatening.
    Even a mild burn can be serious for an infant younger than 3 years or an elderly person. A small burn on an infant might affect a large percentage of his or her total skin area, which makes even a minor burn a serious threat to the child’s health. Skin wounds in older adults often heal more slowly, and that makes a burn more likely to become infected in an elderly person. To avoid complications, any type of burn in an infant or elderly person should be evaluated by a medical professional.

  • closeup image of healing burn wound on hand
    9. How do burns heal? From the bottom up.
    All thermal, chemical and sunburns destroy at least the top layer of skin. Serious burns damage the lower skin layers too. And when the body heals these injuries, it begins by building new tissue from the bottom up. First, your skin will peel to slough off dead skin so new tissue can grow in. Next, the body begins building new tissue layers in the wound, which may look gooey or yellowish for a few days. If you develop a fever during this process, see a doctor. Healing is complete when new skin grows over the surface.

  • parent rinsing child's hand in sink
    10. The best home remedy for burns might be tap water.
    Running cool tap water over a mild thermal or sunburn provides instant pain relief. If you can’t run water over the burned body part, try applying cool compresses for 10 to 15 minutes at a time for half an hour after the burn occurred. (Drench a chemical burn with water.) Afterwards, gently dry the burn and apply a non-stick bandage. You can use aloe vera gel or antibiotic ointment to keep the burned area moist (and more comfortable) for the first few days. Avoid applying butter, which has no benefit. Don’t break any blisters that develop. You can take over-the-counter pain medication to help relieve the discomfort of burned skin.

10 Things to Know About Burns | How to Treat 2nd and 3rd Degree Burns

About The Author

As “the nurse who knows content,” Elizabeth Hanes, RN, works with national and regional healthcare systems, brands, agencies and publishers to produce all types of consumer-facing content. Formerly a perioperative and cosmetic surgery nurse, Elizabeth today uses her nursing knowledge to inform her writing on a wide variety of medical, health and wellness topics.
  1. Burns. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/burns.html
  2. A Burning Issue: Handling Household Burns. U.S. National Institutes of Health, News in Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2013/12/burning-issue
  3. Burns. U.S. National Institute of General Medicine. https://www.nigms.nih.gov/Education/Pages/Factsheet_Burns.aspx
  4. Electrical Injuries. Merck Manual, Professional Version. https://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/injuries-poisoning/electrical-and-lightning-injuries/electrical-injuries
  5. Outpatient Burns: Prevention and Care. American Association of Family Physicians. https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/0101/p25.html
  6. Electrical Burns: First Aid. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/first-aid/first-aid-electrical-burns/basics/art-20056687
  7. Emergency Care for Chemical and Electrical Burns. American Safety & Health Institute and Medic First Aid. https://emergencycare.hsi.com/blog/emergency-care-for-chemical-and-electrical-burns
  8. Burns. American College of Emergency Physicians. http://www.emergencycareforyou.org/emergency-101/burns/#sm.0001ry6n72jxcfq8wfz1dqrmsj2bk
  9. Yin S. Chemical and Common Burns in Children. Clinical Pediatrics 2017, Vol. 56(5S) 8S–12S.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28420255  
Was this helpful?
Last Review Date: 2021 Mar 2
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.