Burn Facts

Was this helpful?

A burn is a type of traumatic injury to your body’s tissues caused by heat, electricity, chemicals, or radiation.

Thermal burns are the most common type of burn and are caused by external heat sources such as hot liquids and metals, steam, and flames. Scalds from hot liquids and steam are some of the most common—and preventable—childhood accidents.

Electrical burns are caused by electrical currents. Causes may include workplace accidents, accidental contact with electrical appliances or wiring, and even lightning. Young children may suffer electrical burns from chewing on electrical cords or sticking objects in uncovered electrical outlets. Electrical burns may appear minor, but can cause serious internal damage. Seek medical help right away for electrical burns.

Chemical burns may be caused by acids, detergents, or solvents that come into contact with your skin and/or eyes.

Radiation burns come from prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, or from sources of ionizing radiation such as X-rays and radiation therapy for cancer treatment.

Burns are classified as first-, second-, or third-degree, depending on how deep and severely they penetrate the skin’s surface. First-degree burns affect only the outer layer of skin. The burn site can be red, painful, and dry, but it does not blister. A mild sunburn is one example. You usually don’t need to see a doctor for a first-degree burn. But if a first-degree burn covers a large area of the body, or if the victim is an infant or older adult, seek emergency medical attention.

Second-degree burns involve the top two layers of skin. The burn site may appear red and blistered, and may be swollen and painful. You may be able to treat some second-degree burns at home if only a small amount of skin is burned. But you should see a doctor if the burn covers more than two or three inches of skin or if the burn is on the hands, feet, face, or genitals. Extensive burns can lead to profound fluid loss and even hypovolemic shock—a life-threatening medical emergency.

Third-degree burns penetrate and damage deeper skin layers, and may also damage the underlying bones, muscles and tendons. The burn area may appear white or charred. Pain may be severe, or there may be no sensation if nerve endings are destroyed. Seek immediate medical attention for this type of burn.

How you treat a thermal burn depends on the kind of burn it is. For minor burns, take these steps:

  1. Cool the burn area right away. If the skin is unbroken, place the area in a cool water bath or under cool running water for at least five minutes.

  2. Cover the burn with a sterile gauze bandage or clean dressing to protect it.

  3. Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and swelling. If fever or other signs of a viral infection are present, aspirin should be avoided in children and adolescents, unless otherwise directed by a physician, due to the risk of Reye's syndrome.

  4. Watch the burn for signs of infection. These include increased pain, redness, swelling, or pus. If the burn becomes infected, see a doctor.

Serious burns may require emergency treatment. Call 911 if a burn is the size of your palm or larger, severe (third degree), if the burn victim has inhaled smoke, or for chemical or electrical burns. You should also call if you don’t know how severe the burn is or if you suspect abuse is the cause.
When treating a burn, never use butter, oil, ice, medications, ointments, or other household remedies. These can cause more damage to the skin. Don’t soak severe burns in cold water; this can cause the victim to go into shock. Don’t try to pop blisters. If clothing is stuck to the burned area, don’t remove it. Keep the burned area elevated above the heart if you can, and cover it with a cool, wet sterile bandage until you can get help.

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 May 9
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.