First Aid for Burns: Immediate Actions and Treatment

Last updated:
May 30, 2023

Burns, often referred to as one of the most painful injuries, can occur in various circumstances and lead to significant physical and emotional distress. Understanding the different types of burns, their causes, and the degrees of severity is crucial for providing effective first aid and seeking appropriate medical care. In this article, we will explore the fundamentals of burns, equipping you with the knowledge to respond promptly and effectively when faced with a burn-related emergency.


What Are The Different Types of Burns?

The different types of burns include thermal burns, chemical burns, electrical burns, and radiation burns. They are classified according to the source of the heat that caused them. Each type of burn requires specific first aid measures and prompt medical attention. Understanding the nature of these burns helps in assessing the severity and providing appropriate care.


Thermal Burns

Thermal burns are the most common type of burn and occur when the skin comes into contact with hot objects, flames, scalding liquids, or steam. These burns can range from mild to severe, depending on factors such as the temperature of the heat source, duration of exposure, and the sensitivity of the affected area. Symptoms of thermal burns include redness, pain, swelling, and in severe cases, blistering or charring of the skin.


Chemical Burns

Chemical burns result from contact with corrosive substances like acids, alkalis, or solvents. These substances can damage the skin and underlying tissues, causing burns that may be more severe than thermal burns. Chemical burns can occur through direct contact, inhalation of fumes, or ingestion. It is important to immediately flush the affected area with water and remove any contaminated clothing to minimize the damage caused by the chemical.


Electrical Burns

Electrical burns occur when an electric current passes through the body, causing injury to the tissues. They can be deceiving as the damage might not be visible on the surface, but the internal injuries can be severe. Electrical burns can result from faulty electrical equipment, exposed wires, or being struck by lightning. In addition to burns, electrical shocks can cause damage to muscles, nerves, and other internal organs. It is crucial to prioritize the safety of the victim and seek medical attention immediately.


Radiation Burns

Radiation burns are caused by exposure to sources of radiation, such as the sun, tanning beds, X-rays, or nuclear accidents. These burns are often associated with prolonged exposure or high levels of radiation. The severity of radiation burns depends on the type and intensity of the radiation, as well as the duration of exposure. Symptoms may include redness, skin damage, blistering, and in severe cases, radiation sickness.


Differentiating Burn Severity

Understanding the severity of the burn is crucial for providing appropriate first aid and seeking timely medical attention. Burns are categorized into different degrees based on the depth and extent of tissue damage.


1. First-Degree Burns

Also known as superficial burns, first-degree burns only affect the outermost skin layer, called the epidermis. First-degree burns typically exhibit redness, pain, and mild swelling. The affected area may be tender to the touch and appear dry or slightly blistered.

These burns generally heal within a week and usually do not leave scars. They can be managed with simple first aid measures such as cool water, pain relief, and the application of soothing ointments or aloe vera.


2. Second-Degree Burns

Second-degree burns are categorized into two subtypes: superficial partial-thickness burns and deep partial-thickness burns.

  • Superficial Partial-Thickness Burns: These burns affect the epidermis and the upper layer of the underlying dermis. The burn site appears red, blistered, and may be extremely painful. The blisters are often filled with clear fluid. Superficial partial-thickness burns typically heal within a few weeks with proper wound care and may leave minimal scarring.
  • Deep Partial-Thickness Burns: These burns extend deeper into the dermis, causing more severe damage. The burn site may appear red or white, and blisters can be present. These burns are typically more painful and may result in swelling and a mottled appearance. Deep partial-thickness burns require more time to heal, often weeks to months. They may require medical intervention, such as wound dressings, to prevent infection and promote healing. Scarring is more likely with these burns.


3. Third-Degree Burns

Third-degree burns, also known as full-thickness burns, extend through all layer of skin and can potentially damage underlying tissues, muscles, and bones. The burn site may appear charred, white, or blackened. The burned area may be numb due to nerve damage, and the surrounding skin may appear leathery or waxy. Third-degree burns are typically painless.

Third-degree burns require immediate medical attention. They can lead to severe scarring, loss of function, and potential complications such as infection, fluid loss, and electrolyte imbalances. Surgical intervention, such as skin grafting, is often necessary for wound closure and rehabilitation.


Immediate First Aid Steps for Burns

First aid steps for burn wounds include cooling the burn and covering it with a dressing. When providing immediate first aid for burns, it is crucial to act promptly to minimize further injury and alleviate pain.


Cooling the Burn

When providing first aid for burns, cooling the burn is a crucial step to alleviate pain, prevent further damage, and promote healing. Here are the immediate first aid steps for cooling a burn:

  1. Ensure Safety: Before attempting to cool the burn, ensure that the area is safe and free from any ongoing threats. If necessary, remove the person from the source of the burn or extinguish any flames.
  2. Stop the Burning Process: For thermal burns, such as those caused by heat or flames, remove the source of the burn if it is still in contact with the person's skin. For chemical burns, brush off any dry chemicals and rinse the affected area with water to dilute and remove the chemical.
  3. Cool the Burned Area: Run cool (not cold) water over the burn for about 10 to 20 minutes or until the pain subsides. Alternatively, you can use a clean, damp cloth soaked in cool water and gently apply it to the burn.
  4. Avoid Ice or Freezing: Do not use ice or very cold water to cool the burn as it can cause further damage to the tissues.


Precautions Before Cooling a Burn

Before attempting to cool a minor burn, keep the following precautions in mind:

  • Use caution while handling the burn and avoid putting yourself at risk.
  • Do not use ice or icy water. Extreme cold can cause additional damage to the skin and tissues.
  • Do not apply any creams, ointments, or adhesive dressings at this stage, as they can trap heat and delay the cooling process.
  • If the burn is extensive or involves the face, hands, feet, genitals, or major joints, or if the person is an infant, elderly, or has a compromised immune system, seek medical help immediately.


Covering the Burn

After cooling the burn, covering it with a dressing can help protect the area from infection and further damage. Here are the precautions to take when applying a dressing on a burn:

  1. Use a Sterile Dressing: Ensure that the dressing you use is sterile to minimize the risk of infection. Clean, non-stick dressings or sterile gauze pads are suitable options.
  2. Avoid Adhesive Dressings on Blisters: If the burn has blisters, avoid using adhesive dressings directly on them. Instead, cover the burn with a non-stick dressing or sterile gauze pads to prevent further trauma to the blisters.
  3. Secure the Dressing: Use medical tape or bandages to secure the dressing in place. Make sure it is snug but not too tight to restrict blood flow.
  4. Seek Medical Attention if Needed: If the burn is severe, covers a large area, or if there are signs of infection (such as increasing pain, redness, swelling, pus, or fever), seek immediate medical attention.

Pain Management For Burns

The pain of a burn can be quite intense and it is important to manage the pain in order to alleviate any suffering. The following methods can be used to help manage the pain caused by burns:


Over-the-Counter Pain Medications

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications can be helpful in managing the discomfort associated with burns. These medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), can provide temporary relief from pain and reduce inflammation. It is important to carefully follow the instructions on the packaging and consult with a healthcare professional, especially if you have any underlying health conditions or are taking other medications.


Cool Compresses or Cold Packs

The use of cool compresses or cold packs can help alleviate pain and reduce inflammation in burn injuries. Applying a cool, moist cloth or compress to the burn can provide soothing relief. Cold packs wrapped in a thin towel can also be used, but it is important to avoid direct contact with the skin to prevent further damage.

However, it is essential to note that cool compresses or cold packs should be used only after the initial cooling of the burn with cool water. They should not be used as a substitute for initial cooling, as they do not have the same immediate effect on reducing the temperature of the burn and preventing further tissue damage.


What Should You Avoid When Administering First Aid For Burns?

Here's a list of actions and practices to avoid when administering first aid for burns, dispelling common myths and misconceptions:

  1. Do not apply butter, oil, or toothpaste to burns: These substances can trap heat, increase the risk of infection, and delay the healing process. It is best to keep burns clean and avoid applying any home remedies without professional advice.
  2. Avoid using adhesive bandages directly on blisters: Adhesive bandages can stick to the delicate skin of the blister and cause further damage when removed. Instead, cover the burn with a non-stick dressing or sterile gauze pads to protect the area.
  3. Do not break blisters: Blisters serve as a natural protective barrier for the underlying tissue. Breaking blisters can increase the risk of infection and slow down the healing process. If a blister breaks on its own, clean the area gently and apply a sterile dressing.
  4. Avoid using ice or very cold water directly on burns: Extreme cold can damage the skin and underlying tissues further. Instead, use cool (not cold) water or cool compresses to cool the burn gently.
  5. Do not use adhesive tapes directly on burns: Adhesive tapes can stick to the burn and cause pain and further damage when removed. Instead, use medical tape or non-adhesive dressings to secure dressings in place.
  6. Avoid using creams, ointments, or home remedies without professional advice: Applying substances such as creams, ointments, or home remedies to burns can hinder the healing process, trap heat, and increase the risk of infection. It is best to seek medical advice for appropriate treatment options.
  7. Do not pop or remove any clothing stuck to the burn: Removing clothing stuck to a burn can cause further damage and pain. Instead, leave the clothing in place and seek medical help for proper assessment and care.
  8. Do not underestimate the severity of a burn: Even seemingly minor burns can cause significant pain and potential complications. It is important to treat all burns seriously and seek appropriate medical care for severe burns, burns covering a large area, or burns located on sensitive areas of the body.


How to deal with burns above the neck area, like facial burns?

Dealing with burns above the neck area, specifically facial burns, necessitates careful and specialized attention. When faced with a facial burn, safety should be prioritized by removing the person from any ongoing hazards. Promptly cool the burn with cool running water for a recommended duration, being cautious and gentle to avoid further harm.

It is crucial not to pop any blisters that may form, as they serve as a protective barrier. Instead, cover the burn with a sterile non-stick dressing or clean cloth to safeguard against infection. Seeking immediate medical attention is paramount for facial burns, particularly if they are severe, extensive, or involve sensitive areas like the eyes, nose, or mouth.


How to treat burns inside the mouth or throat?

Treating burns inside the mouth or throat requires special care due to the sensitivity and potential complications involved. To treat these burns, ensure the person's safety and remove them from the source of the burn. Rinse the mouth with cool water to provide relief, avoiding ice or ice water. Refrain from consuming hot, spicy, or acidic foods and beverages.

Over-the-counter pain relievers can be taken for pain relief, following the recommended dosage. Encourage the intake of cold liquids and soft foods for comfort and hydration. Monitor for any signs of worsening symptoms and seek immediate medical attention if needed. Consulting a healthcare professional is essential for proper evaluation and guidance tailored to the specific burn and individual needs.


When to Seek Medical Attention

Medical attention should be sought for burns above the neck area that are severe, cover a large area, involve the eyes, nose, or mouth, or if the person is having difficulty breathing, swallowing, or speaking. Additionally, seek medical help for burns caused by chemicals, electricity, or explosions, as these can have internal effects that require specialized care.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Burn Treatment


Should a Burn be Covered or Left Open?

In general, it is recommended to cover a burn with a sterile non-stick dressing or a sterile gauze pad after it has been cooled. Covering the burn helps protect it from infection and further damage. However, if the burn is very minor and not at risk of getting dirty or rubbing against clothing, leaving it open to the air may be acceptable. 


What Should I Put on a Burn?

After cooling the burn with cool water, it is generally advised to avoid applying any creams, ointments, or home remedies without professional advice. Instead, cover the burn with a sterile non-stick dressing or a sterile gauze pad to protect the area and minimize the risk of infection. 


Can I Pop a Burn Blister?

No, it is not recommended to intentionally pop or break a burn blister. Blisters serve as a natural protective barrier for the underlying tissue, and breaking them increases the risk of infection and delays healing. If a blister breaks on its own, gently clean the area with mild soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover it with a sterile non-stick dressing.


How Long Does it Take for a Burn to Heal?

The healing time for a burn can vary depending on the severity and depth of the burn. Superficial burns may heal within a week or two, while deeper burns may take several weeks or even months to heal completely. Proper wound care, following medical advice, and maintaining good overall health can contribute to the healing process.


Can I Use Home Remedies for Burn Treatment?

It is generally not recommended to rely solely on home remedies for burn treatment. Home remedies such as applying butter, toothpaste, or oils can potentially trap heat, increase the risk of infection, and delay healing. It is best to follow standard first aid measures (cooling the burn, covering it with a sterile dressing) and seek medical advice for proper evaluation and treatment of burns.


What Steps To Take Towards Preventing Burn Injuries At Home or Workplace?

Preventing burn injuries at home or in the workplace is essential for maintaining a safe environment. Here are some steps you can take to prevent burn injuries:


Practice Fire Safety

  • Install smoke detectors in appropriate locations and regularly test them.
  • Have fire extinguishers readily available and ensure everyone knows how to use them.
  • Develop and practice a fire escape plan, especially in residential settings.
  • Avoid smoking indoors or near flammable materials.


Use Safe Cooking Practices

  • Never leave cooking unattended, especially when using high heat or oil.
  • Keep flammable objects, such as towels or curtains, away from the stovetop.
  • Use oven mitts or appropriate hand protection when handling hot pots, pans, or dishes.
  • Keep children away from cooking areas and teach them about kitchen safety.


Take Precautions with Hot Liquids

  • Be cautious when handling hot beverages or foods to prevent spills.
  • Use spill-proof or insulated containers for hot liquids, especially around children.
  • Avoid placing hot items on unstable surfaces or within reach of children.


Ensure Proper Electrical Safety

  • Regularly inspect electrical cords and outlets for damage or fraying.
  • Do not overload electrical outlets or use improper extension cords.
  • Use caution when operating electrical appliances near water sources.
  • Hire a licensed electrician for any electrical repairs or installations.


Be Cautious with Heating Sources

  • Keep flammable materials away from heating sources like space heaters or radiators.
  • Maintain a safe distance between portable heaters and furniture or curtains.
  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions for the safe use of heating devices.


Handle Chemicals Safely

  • Read and follow the instructions and safety guidelines when using chemicals.
  • Wear appropriate protective gear, such as gloves and goggles, when handling hazardous substances.
  • Store chemicals in designated areas away from heat sources and out of reach of children.


Educate and Supervise Children

  • Teach children about burn risks and safety precautions.
  • Keep matches, lighters, and other hazardous items out of children's reach.
  • Supervise children closely, especially around hot appliances, cooking areas, or fireplaces.


Install and Maintain Safety Devices

  • Install and regularly test smoke alarms, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers.
  • Ensure the workplace has appropriate safety protocols, equipment, and training.


Be Prepared for Emergencies

  • Keep a first aid kit readily available and ensure everyone knows its location.
  • Learn basic first aid for burns and other injuries.
  • Have emergency contact numbers accessible, including the local emergency services.


By implementing these preventative measures and promoting a culture of safety, you can significantly reduce the risk of burn injuries at home or in the workplace. Remember, creating a safe environment requires ongoing awareness, education, and diligence.

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