What to Do for Burns

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emergency room treatment of senior man's skin burn on forearm
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Some burns never should be treated at home, while others can easily be taken care of with a few first-aid supplies. Knowing when to treat burns at home—and when to seek medical attention—can help you and your family avoid complications from burns.

When to Seek Medical Attention for a Burn

Even mild burns deserve professional evaluation and treatment if they occur in an infant or an elderly person. Burns of any degree can seriously affect the health of these two groups. Part of burn assessment is determining what percentage of the person’s body area is affected. For infants, even a small burn area (such as the top of the shoulder) may be significant for the child’s size. For older people, there is the added concern of having other medical conditions that can affect burn healing.

To play it safe, head to your local urgent care for mild burns in infants or the elderly, and call 911 for serious burns.

People of all age groups should get immediate help for:

  • Burns caused by electrical shock

  • Burns caused by inhalation or ingestion of chemicals or their fumes. Call poison control at (800) 222-1222, then call 911.

  • Burns that cross a major joint, such as the knee

  • Burns to the head, face, neck, hands, genitalia or feet

  • Circumferential burns that go all the way around the body or a body part, such as a burn that encircles the torso or a leg

  • Injuries caused by burns, such as broken bones from a fall after an electrical shock

  • Loss of consciousness or change of mental status after being burned

  • Serious second-degree or third-degree burns

 

Fortunately, most burns fall into the mild category. The most common cause of burns is an external heat source, such as a hot liquid, stove burner, or fire. These are thermal burns. You can safely treat thermal burns, sunburns, and some chemical skin burns at home using standard burn first-aid measures. Serious burns can be covered with a clean, moist cloth until medical help is available.

How to Treat Burns

You can easily perform first-aid treatment for minor burns (thermal, chemical and sunburn) using supplies you probably already have on hand.

To treat first-degree burns and mild second-degree burns with blisters at home:

  • Run cool water over the burn for the first half-hour. Alternatively, you can apply cool compresses. Do not apply ice to burns, as it can slow the healing process.

  • Gently dry the burned area and apply a non-stick bandage. Covering the burn can help stop bacteria from getting in and causing an infection.

  • Do not pop burn blisters—more on this below.

  • If desired, you can apply antibiotic ointment or aloe vera gel to keep the wound soft and pliable for the first couple of days. However, do not keep the burn moist for more than a day or two. Too much moisture will slow the healing process and increase your risk of developing an infection in the wound.

  • Never apply butter, lard or any type of cooking grease to a burn. This ‘home remedy’ has no therapeutic value and can, in fact, make your wound more susceptible to infection.

  • Take an over-the-counter pain-relief medicine if you experience great discomfort.

Always seek immediate medical attention for electrical burns. If possible, turn off the power source. If you know the power source is off, you can treat mild thermal burn injuries caused by the electricity.

First Aid for Second-Degree Burns with Blisters

Second-degree burns produce blisters, and you need to leave those blisters intact. Popping a burn blister can allow bacteria to enter the wound and cause an infection. Instead, follow the burn first-aid steps outlined above and leave the blisters alone. Eventually they will burst on their own. After bursting, the blister’s excess skin may chafe or become bothersome. You can safely trim this dead skin using a clean pair of scissors that has been disinfected with rubbing alcohol.

Second-degree burns can cause skin discoloration or scarring after they heal. You can’t do much to prevent that at home, so see a doctor if this potential side effect concerns you.

Burns may be uncomfortable, but at least you can take care of most of them at home. Using these burn first-aid treatments can help you and your family avoid burn complications like infection and relieve discomfort as quickly as possible.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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.
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