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Burn Treatment 101

Burns are classified as first, second, or third degree depending on their depth, not on the amount of pain or the extent of the burn.

A first-degree burn involves only the outer layer of skin. The skin is dry, painful, and sensitive to touch. A mild sunburn is an example.

A second-degree burn involves several layers of skin. The skin becomes swollen, puffy, weepy, or blistered.

A third-degree burn involves all layers of skin and may include any underlying tissue or organs. The skin is dry, pale white or charred black, swollen, and sometimes breaks open. Nerves are destroyed or damaged, so there may be little pain except on the edge, where there may be a second-degree burn.

Home Treatment

  • Run cold tap water over the burn for 10 to 15 minutes. Cold water is the best immediate treatment for minor burns. The cold lowers the skin temperature and lessens the severity of the burn. Do not use ice, because it may further damage the injured skin.
  • Remove rings, bracelets, watches, or shoes from the burned limb. Swelling may make them difficult to remove later.

For first-degree burns and second-degree burns with intact blisters:
  • Leave the burn alone for 24 hours. Don't cover the burn unless clothing rubs on it. If it rubs, cover it with a gauze pad taped well away from the burn. Do not encircle a hand, arm, or leg with tape. Change the bandage after 24 hours, and then every two days.
  • Do not put salve, butter, grease, oil, or ointment on a burn. They increase the risk of infection and don't help heal the burn.
  • After two to three days of healing, the juice from an aloe leaf can soothe minor burns.

For second-degree burns:
  • Do not break blisters. If the blisters break, clean the area by running tap water over it. Apply an antibiotic ointment, such as Polysporin or Bacitracin, and cover the burn with a sterile dressing. Don't touch the wound with your hands or any unsterile objects. Remove the dressing every day, clean the wound, and cover it again.
  • Aspirin or ibuprofen can help relieve pain from minor burns.

Third-degree burns require immediate medical treatment. Call a health professional and apply home treatment:
  • Make sure the source of the burn has been extinguished.
  • Have the person lie down to prevent shock.
  • Cover the burned area with a clean sheet soaked in cool water.
  • Do not apply any salve or medication to the burn.

When to Call a Health Professional:
  • For all third-degree burns.
  • If in doubt about the extent of a burn, or in doubt if it is a second- or third-degree burn.
  • If a second-degree burn involves the face, hands, feet, genitals, or a joint and is more than 1 inch in diameter.
  • If the burn encicles an arm or leg, or covers more than one-quarter of the body part involved.
  • If it is an electrical burn. Electrical burns are often more extensive than they appear.
  • If the pain lasts longer than 48 hours.
  • If signs of infection develop:
    • Increased pain, swelling, redness, or tenderness
    • Heat or red streaks extending from the area
    • Discharge of pus
    • Fever of 100° or higher with no other cause
    • If an infant, older adult, or person with diabetes is burned.
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