Overview of Burns

A burn is damage to the skin from a heat source, a corrosive chemical, or electricity. Chemical burns, which can range from mild to severe, result from contact with acids or alkalis (such as lye). Electrical burns occur when someone touches faulty or uninsulated wiring (or when a child chews through the wiring).

Types of Burns

Burns are classified according to their degree of severity and the amount of skin involved.

First-degree burns damage only the epidermis (the outer skin layer). They cause reddening of the skin, tenderness, possibly some swelling. This type of burn is not dangerous but can be extremely painful. Such a burn is usually the result of some minor household accident, such as grabbing the handle of a pan that’s too hot, touching a hot iron, or scalding yourself with hot water or steam. Mild sunburn is also classified as first degree.

Second-degree burns damage the epidermis and part of the dermis (the underlying skin layer). They cause pain, blistering, redness, mild to moderate swelling. Because of fluid leaking from damaged blood vessels, the layers separate from one another, which causes blisters to form. Although very painful, second-degree burns are generally not critical unless they are quite large or become infected.

Third-degree burns destroy all skin layers and cause damage to muscle, bone, blood vessels, and nerves beneath the skin. The skin may turn white, red, brown, tan, or black (charred) in color. There is no blistering, but extensive swelling occurs. Because of nerve damage, there is often little or no immediate pain and generally no bleeding.

Third-degree burns, which often leave scars when they heal, are serious; they can be fatal (because the skin can no longer insulate the body from microorganisms that cause disease), and they should always be treated as a medical emergency.

Immediate Care for Minor Burns

Most minor burns—which include first-degree burns and second-degree burns that are small and haven’t occurred in sensitive areas such as the genitals, face, or soles of the feet—will usually heal without treatment. However, applying cold water right away to a burn will help minimize damage, speed healing, and reduce the chance of potential infection. More severe burns require medical attention.

The best way to treat a minor burn is not, as many people believe, with butter; butter won’t relieve pain and may cause infection if blisters form and then break. The following measures provide relief and speed healing.

  • Rinse the burned area in cold water. Cold water is by far the most effective first-aid treatment; it eases the pain as it cleanses. If you burn yourself, immerse the burn in cold water (or ice water), or hold it under cold running water for 15 minutes. Continually applying fresh cold-water compresses will help if it’s not practical to immerse the burned area, or use ice wrapped in a towel. For chemical burns, immediately rinse the skin with a steady flow of water from a spigot, shower, or hose for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Bandage the burn. After applying cold water or compresses to a burn, you can bandage it with sterile gauze pads held on by tape if you wish. However, if blisters appear, try not to burst them. Dry the burn carefully before bandaging. You can apply a light dressing of an over-the-counter antibiotic cream (such as Polysporin or Neosporin), which will soothe the area, keep the skin moist, and protect it from infection.
  • Don’t apply burn ointments. Like butter (or mayonnaise), these ointments, usually oil-based, won’t relieve pain but instead will trap heat, slow down healing, and increase the risk of infection.
  • Leave small blisters alone. Blisters smaller than a dime that appear soon after the burn will usually shrink within a day or two and be reabsorbed by the body.
  • Contact your doctor if a burn site becomes infected. Signs of infection include redness and pain that grow worse over a few days, pus that forms in blisters, an offensive odor at the burn site, and/or fever. After examining the burn to assess its severity, your doctor will clean and dress the injury and may also prescribe oral antibiotics to ward off infections.

Immediate Care for Major Burns

Seek medical attention right away if there are signs of a third-degree burn (lack of immediate pain, whiteness, and charring) or for a second-degree burn that covers an area larger than your hand or is on the face, hands, genitals, or other sensitive areas. In the meantime, cover the area with sterile gauze, if possible.

For an electrical burn, get medical help even if it appears superficial, since damage from electrical burns is usually deeper and more serious than the surface burn indicates.

It’s also usually advisable to contact your doctor for severe sunburn if the pain is especially intense or there is serious blistering.

Burn Prevention Tips

Burns are often caused by accidents that are preventable. In addition to commonsense care when cooking or ironing, take these steps:

  • Be sure to secure any containers of corrosive chemicals, repair loose wiring, and—if you have small children in your home—place covers over any unused electrical outlets.
  • Wear protective clothing and glasses when working with chemicals.
  • Have working smoke detectors on each floor of your home and a fire extinguisher in the kitchen.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at HealthCommunities.com

Published: 12 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 27 Oct 2014