10 Types of Second-Degree Burns

Variations in appearance, cause, and severity

Second-degree burns, also called partial-thickness burns, involve the outer layer of skin (epidermis). They can extend to the middle skin layer below (dermis).

The degree of a burn is based on how many layers deep the damage goes. Burns can damage the epidermis, dermis, and fatty tissues under the skin. Second-degree burns can look different depending on their cause, size, and exact depth.

Skin Layers Affected
SEVERITY EPIDERMIS DERMIS SUBCUTANEOUS
1st-degree burn   
2nd-degree burn
3rd-degree burn
Source: National Institutes of Health: MedlinePlus

A 2nd-degree burn that affects less than 10% of the skin's surface can usually be treated on an outpatient basis using antibiotic ointments. The sterile dressing will need to be changed two or three times a day, depending on the severity of the burn. Larger burns need medical attention.

The pictures below will show you some of the different causes of second-degree burns and how they look. This article will also explain how to care for them.

Scalding

This photo contains content that some people may find graphic or disturbing.

Scalding hot water spilled onto this reader's hand, causing blisters consistent with 2nd degree burns

Nordyke

This second-degree burn was caused by scalding with hot water. The woman involved was carrying a pot of boiling water and lost her grip on one handle. The water spilled on her left hand.

Scalds are burns from hot liquids. They almost never cause full-thickness (third-degree) burns, but they do blister quickly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 350,000 Americans are treated for burns in emergency rooms each year. Over 40,000 are hospitalized.

Open Flame Burn

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Partial thickness burn from an unloaded potato gun

Shells

An unloaded potato gun gave this person a second-degree burn. A potato gun uses hairspray as the explosive agent to shoot a potato into the air. In this case, the flaming hairspray damaged the skin.

Symptoms of a second-degree burn include pain, deep redness, blistering, and areas of exposed tissue that are moist and shiny.

Chemical Heat Pack Burn

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Second degree burn from a reusable heat pack

Nise

A reusable chemical heat pack burned this person's neck. The person microwaved the pack for 60 seconds, even though the instructions said to heat it for 30 seconds.

There are no blisters here. Blisters show that the epidermis is damaged but not destroyed. In this case, the destruction of the outer layer caused areas of whiteness and discoloration common with many second-degree burns.

Chemical Heat Pack Burn (Five Weeks Later)

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Healing 2nd degree burn

Nise

After a burn from a chemical heat pack, this person was treated with topical anesthetics to numb the skin. This picture shows how the burn looks five weeks after the injury.

Even after significant healing, burns this severe can cause pain for weeks. Over-the-counter pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) can help.

Candle Wax Burn

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Hot wax under a faucet exploded, causing these burns

Cmoore

Hot candle wax is a common cause of second-degree burns. In this case, the candle wax exploded and splattered wax onto the person's hand.

When water touches hot wax near a burning wick, the wax can explode. The type of candle or wax can make a big difference in how severe the injury is.

Paraffin wax melts at around 120 degrees F. Votive candles melt at around 135 F, and taper candles at 140 F or higher. The most serious burns come from beeswax, which melts at 145 F or higher.

To avoid burns, the wax temperature should be well below 125 F. That's a common temperature for body waxing.

Steam Iron Burn

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Steam and hot water from an iron caused this large blister

Cheryl H.

After burning herself with the steam from a household iron, this woman developed a painful second-degree blister on her pinky finger.

It's easy to underestimate the dangers of hot steam. When your car overheats, for example, the steam escaping from the radiator will be between 190 F and 220 F. That's hot enough to cause a severe burn in less than a second.

If the jet of hot steam hits your eye, your cornea can be severely damaged. Burns like this can cause:

  • Scarring
  • Holes in the eye tissue
  • Blindness

Hot Oil Burn

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Hot Oil Burn

Sarah

Hot oil burns are common in the kitchen, especially among children. Deep fryers are often the culprits. When water spills or splashes into a deep fryer, there's a huge splatter. Fat splattering from a hot frying pan can also cause burns. In this case, hot oil from a campfire frying pan damaged someone's knee.

Cooking oil can easily exceed 375 F, but it is not the only source of non-water liquid burns. Motor oil can reach 275 F. You can be injured if you try to change the oil too soon after a car engine has stopped running. Even worse is molten sugar used for making candy. It can easily exceed 340 F.

Sloughing

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Sloughing

Shelley Saunders

Once a second-degree blister pops or tears, the epidermis will begin to fall away in sheets. This normal process is called sloughing. This photo shows sloughing after someone spilled hot water from a pot of pasta onto her foot.

Sloughing may start several days after the injury. When skin sloughs after a severe burn, the exposed tissue may not have begun to heal. In such cases, oral antibiotics may be needed to reduce the risk of infection.

Sunburns

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Second Degree Sunburn

Jayjay

Sunburns usually cause redness, stinging, and peeling. However, if you stay out long enough or fall asleep in the sun without UV protection, you can easily get a severe second-degree burn.

The problem with second-degree sunburns is that large areas of skin are involved. The blistering can be extensive and can cause terrible pain.

Because such large areas are involved, you may also experience:

  • Rapid dehydration
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Weakness
  • Higher likelihood of infection

In rare cases, people with sunburn can go into shock.

Second-degree sunburns take longer to heal. They increase the lifetime risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma

Friction Burn

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Friction Burn

Dawn H.

A friction burn is a type of abrasion or scrape. It causes the loss of the epidermis and damages the dermis below. Friction burns don't involve heat, but they are still considered second-degree burns.

They're treated in the same way as a thermal (heat) burn. The most common types of friction burn are road rash and rug burns.

Topical antibiotic ointments and twice-daily dressing changes can usually prevent infection. Oral antibiotics may be prescribed for more severe cases.

How to Treat a 2nd-Degree Burn

The first thing you should do for a second-degree burn is cool the skin to keep the burn from getting worse. You can do this by:

  • Running cool water over it
  • Putting the burned area in a container of cool water
  • Applying a cool compress

Continue cooling the skin until it no longer hurts when you remove the source of the cold. It may take as long as 30 minutes.

No Ice!

Don't use ice or ice water to cool your skin after a burn. Temperatures that are too low can further damage the tissues.

Treatments for a second-degree burn may include:

  • Antibiotic cream, over-the-counter or prescription
  • Bandaging with gauze or something else that won't stick to the burn
  • Over-the-counter pain medication such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil (ibuprofen)
  • Elevation to prevent inflammation and lessen pain

When to Get Medical Help

Get medical attention for a second-degree burn if:

  • The burn is blistered
  • You have severe pain
  • You develop a fever or other signs of infection
  • The burn doesn't improve in two weeks
  • Fluid is leaking from the burned area
  • Swelling or redness increase
  • The burn is more than 2-3 inches wide
  • The burn is on the hands, feet, face, genitals, buttocks, or over a major joint

Summary

Second-degree burns damage the top layer of skin (epidermis) and sometimes also involve the dermis. Fire, chemical heat packs, and hot liquids can cause burns like these. So can friction and sunburn.

If you've had a second-degree burn, you can expect to have pain, redness, blistering, and sloughing of the top layers of skin as you heal. You may have some scarring and your skin may be a different color after the burn heals.

You may be able to treat a second-degree burn with cool water, antibiotic creams, pain relievers, and clean bandages. If your burn is more severe, you should seek medical care right away.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the fluid in a burn blister?

    The fluid inside a burn blister is ultrafiltration of plasma. It is rich in immunoglobulins, cytokines, prostaglandins, and interleukins. This may help the burn to heal faster. 


  • How often do you change the dressing for a second-degree burn?

    Change the dressing within 48 hours after the wound is first bandaged. If it's healing well after that, change the dressing every three to five days. However, if the burn area is painful or there's an odor, change the bandages right away.

  • How long does it take a second-degree sunburn to heal?

    A second-degree sunburn should be fully healed within one to three weeks if it's treated properly and infection doesn’t develop. Your skin may still be discolored and scars may be permanent, but the discomfort should be fully resolved.

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13 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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