Frequently Asked Questions About Burns
Nobody escapes getting burned at some time during their life. Perhaps it’s a sunburn on your back that keeps you tossing and turning in bed for days because you can’t find a comfortable position for sleeping. Or maybe you forgot to turn the power off before you tried to replace an electrical outlet at home and got zapped on the hand. No matter the cause, burns hurt—and some of them require emergency medical attention.
The most common type of burn is a thermal burn, which is a burn caused by an external heat source, such as fire or cooking grease. Knowing how to evaluate the severity of a thermal burn can help you know when it’s OK to treat the burn at home and when you should seek prompt medical care. Most first-degree burns are mild and can be treated at home (unless they involve an infant or elderly person, in which case you should see a doctor). Third-degree burns (and severe second-degree burns) require prompt medical treatment to avoid complications like infection or swelling that interferes with breathing.
To determine the severity of a thermal burn, look at it closely to see which of these descriptions it best resembles:
- Uniformly pink to red skin area, dry, painful, skin may look slightly raised or welted =
- Red skin area with a few small blisters or 1 to 2 larger blisters; burned area may look patchy, blanches white when pressing a finger against it, very painful =
mild second-degree burn
- Red skin area with a moist, glistening appearance, possibly many small or large blisters (or no blisters); does not blanch white when pressing a finger against it; often you can see defined skin layers at the edge of the burned area, very painful =
severe second-degree burn
- Red skin area with a dry, leathery appearance, possibly brown or white patches in the burn area, no blisters, usually not painful to touch, usually you can see deep burn penetration into underlying tissue throughout the burned area =
Otherwise healthy adolescents and adults can treat first-degree and mild second-degree thermal and other burns at home, but some circumstances and populations require more aggressive care. In general, you should seek medical attention for:
Burns of any kind—including thermal, electrical, chemical, sunburn—in infants (younger than 3 years) and elderly people.
Burns that encircle an entire limb or the torso, cross a major joint (such as the knee), cover a large area of skin (such as the entire back or both legs) or affect the face, hands, genitalia or feet.
Second-degree burns that occur on the face or neck in any age group.
Severe second- or third-degree burns that occur anywhere on the body in any age group.
Self-treatment at home for first-degree and mild second-degree burns caused by heat or sun rays include these steps:
Run cool tap water over the burn or apply cool compresses every 10 to 15 minutes for the first half-hour after a burn. Do not apply ice, as this can cause complications with burn healing.
After rinsing, carefully dry the area and cover the burn with a non-stick bandage.
Keep the burn moist, if desired, by applying aloe vera gel or antibiotic ointment to the burn for the first day or two. Do not keep the burn moist for more than a few days, as this can lead to infection. .
- Do not spread butter, lard, shortening or other cooking greases to the burn because this strategy has no therapeutic value and could cause infection.
Do not pop any blisters. Let them break on their own to avoid causing an infection.
Take over-the-counter pain medicine to relieve discomfort. Aloe vera spray is a temporary relief measure sunburn pain.
For chemical burns, flush the affected area with water for 20 minutes and apply cool compresses. Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department for serious burns.
Always get professional medical care for electrical burns because internal damage, if present, will not be visible. Turn off the power source if possible. Do not approach someone with an electrical burn injury unless you know the power source is off. Call 911 for help if the source is high-voltage or overhead power lines, or lightening.
There may be thermal burns from where the electricity entered and exited the body. For minor wounds from the thermal burns, apply cool compresses for pain relief.
Mild thermal burns should fully heal within a week to 10 days. Severe second-degree burns might take 2 to 3 weeks to heal and may cause skin discoloration or scarring. Third-degree burns always require skin grafts and can take many weeks or months to fully heal, usually with scarring.
Because children are especially vulnerable to the effects of burns, you should take the following precautions to prevent burns:
Keep combustible devices like matches, cigarette lighters, and firecrackers out of the reach of children.
Keep your home’s water heater set below 120 degrees F.
Store cleaning chemicals on high shelves, where children can’t reach them.
Test the heat of bathwater or shower spray before bathing your child.
Use caution when operating a fireplace. Do not leave children unattended around open flames.
Use the back burners on the stove when children are present.
If you are in doubt as to the seriousness of a burn, err on the side of caution and call your doctor or go to your nearest urgent care center. If it is after hours, go to your hospital’s emergency room. Call 911 for severe or third-degree burns, or other serious symptoms.