A burn is damage to your skin and other body tissues caused by fire, electricity, contact with a very hot object (such as an iron), or friction. Burns can be small or cover large areas of your body.
A superficial (first-degree) burn is damage to the top layer of skin. Although painful, a first-degree burn is usually not serious and rarely leaves scars.
A partial-thickness (second-degree) burn damages the first few layers of skin. A second-degree burn can be very painful. The skin can get infected or leave scars.
A full-thickness (third-degree) burn is a very serious burn that involves all layers of skin and may damage muscle and other tissues under the skin. Large third degree burns can be life-threatening.
Burns caused by chemicals are also called first, second, or third degree burns, but they are treated differently.
What causes a burn?
Burns happen when you stay out in the sun too long without enough skin protection, or when your skin touches something hot, such as:
A hot object, like an iron or skillet
Hot liquids such as glue from a glue gun, melted wax, hot coffee or tea, or steam
Flames from candles, matches, stoves, fireworks, or fires
Electric shocks from items such as frayed cords, outlets, lightening, or power lines can also cause burns.
What are the symptoms?
First-degree burns cause:
Pink or red area of skin (the skin stays red if you press on it)
Mild swelling or puffiness of your skin, but no blisters
After a few days, your skin may itch and start to peel. Large first-degree burns can also cause restlessness, headaches, and fever for a day or two. Sunburns can cause first or second-degree burns and may cover large areas.
Second-degree burns cause the same symptoms as first-degree burns and you will have 1 or more blisters. The blisters usually turn white and may break open. They may leak fluid, making the skin look wet. The burned area may also look blotchy, with some areas redder than others. The burn is usually very painful and there may be some swelling. If large skin areas are burned, you may have nausea or a headache.
Third-degree burns may turn the skin white and ashy or it may be black and leathery. There may be little pain in the burned area because the nerves are also burned, but the areas surrounding the burn will be quite painful.
How is it treated?
You usually donâ€™t need to see your healthcare provider for treatment of a first-degree burn or a small second-degree burn. Get medical treatment for very large sunburns (such as covering the entire chest or entire back), or any burn that covers more than a couple of inches of skin, especially if it is on your hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks, or a big joint, like your knee or shoulder.
First aid for first-degree and second-degree burns includes:
Remove jewelry or tight clothing from the burned area right away, before the skin starts to swell. Donâ€™t remove clothing if it is stuck to the burn. If you cannot do this, emergency departments have special tools for removing jewelry or clothing.
If the burn is small, pour cool running water over the burn or put cool moist cloths on the burn until there is less pain. Donâ€™t use ice or ice water, which can cause more damage to the skin. Running ice water over a large burn, especially if there are open blisters, might increase the risk of shock.
Use a nonprescription antiseptic spray or aloe gel labeled for skin burns to help relieve pain and prevent infection. Donâ€™t put grease, petroleum jelly, butter, or home remedies on the burn because they can make it hard for the burn to heal properly and may increase your risk of infection.
For electrical burns of any size, including lightening strikes:
All electrical burns must be checked right away by a healthcare provider. An electrical burn may seem to have caused just minor damage, but it can go deep into tissues under the skin. The damage may not show for several hours. Delayed treatment can cause more damage.
Cover the burn with a sterile or clean, loose, dry bandage and get medical care.
All third-degree burns and some large second-degree burns are an emergency and require medical treatment. Call 911 or go to an emergency room. Assist a burned person as follows:
If the person’s clothes are burning, smother the flames with a blanket, rug, or jacket, rolling the person on the ground if necessary. Donâ€™t let the person run. Running can fan the flames and burn more of the body.
If the burned area is small (just a few inches), put the burned area in cold water or put cold moist cloths on it briefly to cool the area. Donâ€™t put a large area (for example, all of the lower body) in cold water, and donâ€™t leave the burned area in cold water too long. This could cool the body too much.
Wrap the person loosely in a clean sheet if the burned area is very large. Otherwise, put a dry, loose bandage, such as a pillowcase or clean disposable diaper, on the burned area.
If possible, remove jewelry and tight clothing from the burned area right away, before it starts to swell. If you cannot do this, emergency rooms have special tools for removing jewelry or clothing. DONâ€™T remove clothing that is stuck to the burn. IF the clothing is still smoldering, and canâ€™t be removed, smother the cloth to stop the burning.
DONâ€™T put ice water, lotions, ointments, sprays, or home remedies on the burn.
Burns that cover a lot of your body are usually treated at a burn center. Medical care may include:
Extra fluids to replace the fluid your body is losing through the burned area. Your healthcare provider may give you IV fluids.
Antibiotics to prevent an infection, because the burned skin can no longer protect your body from infection by bacteria.
Special bandages that will help prevent an infection
Prescription medicine for pain
A tetanus shot to prevent tetanus infection
First-degree burns usually heal in 5 to 6 days. The damaged skin may peel within a few days. You will usually not have any scarring unless the burn gets infected.
Second-degree burns usually heal in 10 days to 2 weeks. Large burns may take 3 to 4 weeks to heal. There may be little or no scarring if the burn was not too big and was not infected.
If you have third-degree burns, you may be in the hospital for a few days or for many weeks. You may need skin grafts and several plastic surgeries, depending on the severity of the burns. Soon after the injury, the burn may be covered with a temporary skin graft. Later on, a permanent skin graft from a healthy area of your own skin may be used to cover the burned area.
How can I take care of myself?
Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:
With second-degree burns, new blisters may form over several hours. Try not to break the blisters. If the blister breaks, try to leave the old skin in place to protect the new skin growth underneath. Otherwise, trim off loose skin that is bothering you with clean scissors.
You donâ€™t need to cover the burn unless clothing, air, or something else is irritating it. If you need to cover a burn, put on a clean, dry, loose bandage. Make sure that the tape or adhesive does not touch the burn. Donâ€™t wrap tape completely around a hand, arm, foot, or leg. This could interfere with blood flow to the area and cause more swelling.
Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you donâ€™t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
Avoid wearing clothes or shoes or doing activities that rub or irritate the burned area. Try to use it less than you normally would. This can help it heal.
Try not to expose the burned area to sun and to extremely hot or cold temperatures.
If you are bothered by itching, talk to your healthcare provider, who may prescribe a medicine to help.
When you clean the burned area, wash it gently with water and soap that doesn’t have added scents or chemicals.
Check for any changes or signs of infection, which include new or worse redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from the burned area. If your healthcare provider put a bandage over the burned area, follow your provider’s instructions for changing the bandage.
Drink enough water or juice to keep your urine light yellow. This helps prevent dehydration.
Keep burned arms or legs propped up higher than your heart as much as possible for the first day or 2. This will help reduce pain and swelling.
Ask your healthcare provider:
How long it will take to recover
If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
How to take care of yourself at home
What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.
How can I help prevent burns?
Examples of things you can do to help prevent burns are:
Turn your water heater setting down to 120Â°F (49Â°C).
Keep pot handles turned away from the front of the stove.
When you are outdoors, always use a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or greater and wear protective clothing. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. It’s best to put the sunscreen on your skin 30 to 60 minutes before you go out into the sun. Put more on as often as directed on the label. Avoid being out in the sun for a long time, especially in the late morning and early afternoon.
Wear protective clothing when working with chemicals and follow the label instructions.
Be careful when handling electrical wires. Make sure your body is dry before you touch outlets or cords.
Teach yourself and your family about lightening safety.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth. Last modified: 2014-10-21 Last reviewed: 2014-07-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.