Burns can be caused by fire, the sun, chemicals, heated objects or fluids, and electricity. They can be minor problems or life-threatening emergencies. Distinguishing a minor burn from a more serious burn involves determining the degree of damage to the tissues of the body. If you are not sure how serious the burn is, seek emergency medical help.
First-degree burns are those in which only the outer layer of skin is burned. The skin is usually red and some swelling and pain may occur. Unless the burn involves large portions of the body, it can be treated at home.
Second-degree burns are those in which the first layer of skin has been burned through and the second layer of skin is also burned. In these burns, the skin reddens intensely and blisters develop. Severe pain and swelling also occur. If a second-degree burn is no larger than 2 or 3 inches in diameter, it can be treated at home. If the burn covers a larger area, seek medical attention. You may need a tetanus booster.
Third-degree burns are the most serious and involve all layers of skin. Fat, nerves, muscles, and even bones may be affected. Areas may be charred black or appear a dry white. If nerve damage is substantial, there may be no pain at all. These burns should receive emergency medical attention.
Follow these steps when treating minor burns at home:
1. If the skin is not broken, run cool water over the burn for several minutes.
2. Cover the burn with a sterile bandage or clean cloth.
3. Take aspirin or acetaminophen to relieve any swelling or pain.
Seek emergency treatment immediately for major burns. Until an emergency unit arrives, follow these steps:
1. Remove the person from the source of the burn (fire, electrical current, etc.).
2. If the person is not breathing, begin mouth-to-mouth resuscitation immediately (see Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation).
3. Remove all smoldering clothing to stop further burning.
4. If the person is breathing sufficiently, cover the burned area with a cool, moist, sterile bandage or clean cloth. Do not place any creams, ointments or ice on the burned area or break blisters.