How to Treat Any Burn

A burn can result from any source of excess heat that damages body tissue. Burns can be caused by the sun, radiation, chemicals, hot liquids, electrical devices, fire, and more. Burns can be minor or life-threatening, which is why knowing first aid treatment for burns is essential. Prompt attention can limit damage and promote healing.

Serious burns require emergency treatment. This article discusses the steps to take for a burn right away and when to seek medical care.

Degrees of Burns

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Types of Burns

Burns fall into three categories based on severity. The types of burns are:

  • First-degree (superficial): Affects only the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin), causing redness and pain
  • Second-degree (partial thickness): Affects the epidermis and dermis (inner layer of the two main layers of skin) and includes signs of redness, swelling, blisters, and blotches
  • Third-degree (full thickness): Affects the outer layers of skin as well as fat and other tissues, with the skin darkening or becoming white and tough looking. Third-degree burns may not hurt, as nerves may have been damaged.

What to Do Immediately After a Burn

If you or someone around you gets burned, these are some general steps you should take immediately:

  1. Step away from the source of the burn.
  2. Gently flush the area with cool water to reduce the temperature. Never use ice.
  3. Remove clothing from the wound unless it's sticking; in that case, leave it for medical professionals to remove. Take off any jewelry before the area can swell.
  4. Cover the burn with a clean cloth or a gauze pad if you have it.
  5. Do not use any greases, sprays, butter, or ointments on a burn, as they keep the heat in.

When to Call 911 for Burns

Seek medical attention if the burn area:

  • Blisters
  • Is larger than 2 inches
  • Is on the face, hands, or genitals
  • Has pain lasting for more than a few hours
  • Looks white or charred

If you see charred or white flesh after a burn—or in the case of any large and severe burns—call 911 immediately. This can be a life-threatening emergency. Do not attempt to treat the burn but do cover it with a sterile or clean cloth. If the person is unconscious or not breathing, and it is safe to do so, perform CPR.

The following are the treatment measures to take for the main types of burns, including first-degree, second-degree, third-degree, chemical, and electrical burns.

First-Degree Burns

Treatment

First-degree burns affect only the surface of the skin, causing redness, pain, and perhaps some swelling. They don't usually require medical care.

If you have a first-degree burn, take the following steps:

  • Place a cool wet compress on the area or run it under cool water as quickly as possible to lower the heat. Continue cooling the burn for about 10 minutes or until the pain lessens.
  • Do not put any butter, powder, ointment, sprays, or grease on a burn.
  • Use a mild liquid soap to wash the area each day.
  • You can apply petroleum jelly a couple of times a day.
  • Cover the area with a fresh, clean bandage, if necessary, and protect it from the sun to avoid further damage.

If the burn causes any pain, you can take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication, like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), to reduce pain and inflammation.

Second-Degree Burns

Treatment

A second-degree burn causes redness, blistering, pain, and swelling.

To treat a second-degree burn, do the following:

  • Immerse the area in cool water for at least 10 minutes. Do not use cold water or ice. It may take as long as half an hour for the pain to go down.
  • Remove jewelry or clothing that could become too tight if the area swells.
  • Do not put grease, butter, ointment, or powder on the burn.
  • If you are treating the burn at home, wash your hands and gently rinse the burn, then dry it with a clean, soft cloth.
  • Never break a blister, as it increases the risk of infection. They will break themselves in about a week.
  • If blisters are intact, you do not have to bandage the burn. If they have broken open, wrap the burn loosely in a nonstick bandage, preferably one made for burns.
  • Change the dressing anytime it gets soiled.
  • If the burn is larger than 2–3 inches, or on the face, hands, genitals, or a major joint, see a medical provider promptly.

Third-Degree Burns

Treatment

Third-degree burns, which reach the layers of fat and other structures under the skin, can be life-threatening. If someone has a severe burn with skin that looks charred or white, call 911 or seek medical care immediately. Be sure to take these steps in the meantime:

  • Do not soak the burn with water.
  • Do not apply any ointment, butter, grease, or spray.
  • Do not remove clothing that is stuck to the area.
  • Cover the area with a sterile bandage or a clean loose cloth.

Third-Degree Burns Without Pain

Remember, third-degree burns may not be painful if the nerve endings have been damaged. Even if there is no pain, prompt medical care for a severe burn is essential.

Chemical Burns

Treatment

A chemical burn may be felt immediately or it may take time to develop, depending on the cause. If the burn is deep or bigger than 3 inches, call 911. If you have it, bring the container with the chemical with you to the ER.

Take the following first aid measures for a chemical burn:

  • Wear protective gloves and brush off any dry chemical. Then flush the area with cool water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Remove any clothing or jewelry that may have touched the chemical.
  • Cover the area loosely with gauze or a nonstick material or cloth.
  • If the area begins to hurt again, repeat flushing with cool water.

Poison Control

You can call Poison Control (800-222-1222) for advice if you know what caused your chemical burn. Staff can guide you through the necessary steps for managing the chemical.

Electrical Burns

Treatment

Electrical burns can be worse than they look on the surface. If you have an electrical burn from lightning, electrical wires, or household objects, see a healthcare provider promptly. If you are assisting someone, do not touch them if they are still in contact with the source of the electrical shock or burn.

Call 911 if you observe the following:

  • Severe burns
  • Confusion or loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Muscle spasms or seizures

When it is safe for you to touch the person, administer CPR if you are trained and the person is not moving or breathing. Try to keep them warm and drape a clean cloth over the affected area. Do not use materials with fibers that may become stuck to the wound.

Immediate medical assistance for electrical burns is essential.

Home Remedies for Burns

First-degree or mild second-degree burns can be treated at home. If you are sure the burn is mild, you can take the following steps at home:

  • Flush the burn with cool water and gently clean it. Don't apply any ointment, grease, or spray.
  • If you develop blisters, don't break them. If they pop on their own, clean the area gently and apply antibiotic ointment. Keep the area clean to prevent infection.
  • Aloe vera or a mild moisturizer may soothe your burn as it heals.
  • Keep the burn lightly covered with a clean bandage that won't stick.
  • If the burn continues to hurt, try an OTC pain reliever. Only take it as directed.
  • Watch for signs of infection. If you see redness or feel weak, contact your healthcare provider.

Healing Stages of Burns

The body reacts differently to burns than other types of wounds or injury. Except in minor burns, blisters form, and the risk of serious infection risk can be high.

The healing stages of burns depend on the type of burn you have and include:

  • First-degree burns cause pain and redness for a few hours if cooled down right after the burn occurs, or they may hurt for a day or two. The skin may peel in a couple of days. First-degree burns usually heal within a week and don't typically scar.
  • Second-degree burns form blisters which sometimes pop on their own in about a week. The wound may ooze or bleed. Pain may last for two or three days and then subside. It typically takes two to three weeks or more for a second-degree burn to heal, and the skin may become lighter or darker. There should be no raised scar.
  • Third-degree burns need emergency medical care. Treatment requires hospital care to stabilize the patient and prevent infection. The damaged tissue may be surgically removed and replaced by skin grafts (replacing damaged skin with healthy skin from elsewhere on the body). People may feel pain, fatigue, and itching as the wound heals. Scars from the grafts may fade over time. People often benefit from physical and occupational therapy to recover function and movement after a third-degree burn. The length of recovery varies greatly according to the size and severity of the burn, but these burns are far less fatal than in the past.

When to See a Doctor for a Burn

Seek emergency medical care by calling 911 if:

  • Burns cover the limbs, hands, face, genitals, joints, or a large part of the body.
  • Burns look leathery or skin appears charred, dark, or white.
  • Burns are due to chemicals and/or electrical shock (unless very mild or small).
  • The person has difficulty breathing or is unconscious.

See a healthcare provider for a burn if:

  • You see signs of infection like oozing, pain, redness, and swelling.
  • A burn takes longer than two weeks to heal.
  • You notice scarring.

Summary

Burns are not like other wounds. They affect the body and its tissue more than is visible to the eye. Serious infection is a risk with severe burns. Minor burns can be treated at home by cooling them down, keeping them clean, and watching for infection. Severe second-degree and third-degree burns require medical assistance. In the case of third-degree burns, call 911 and administer CPR if the person is not breathing or is unconscious and also safe to touch.

A Word From Verywell

Burns can be painful and dangerous. They come with a risk of infection, severe tissue damage, or scarring. But if you are aware of the signs of burns and how to perform first aid, you can help avoid serious consequences. Prevention is key, so use safety measures to avoid burns whenever possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should you pop a burn blister?

    No. You'll increase the risk of infection. If it opens on its own, clean it gently, apply antibiotic cream, and watch for signs of infection.

  • Should you put ice on a burn?

    No. Ice can make the tissue damage worse. Only flush gently with cool water to remove the heat from a burn.

  • How long does it take for a burn to heal?

    Healing depends on the severity of the burn. A first-degree burn usually takes about a week. A second-degree burn can take up to two or three weeks. Third-degree burns heal slowly and may require skin grafts or other special treatments.

  • How can you tell when a burn is healing?

    Your skin will appear dry as it heals. It may also be darker or lighter than it was before. If you see redness, oozing, or swelling, call a healthcare provider, as your burn may be infected and need medical treatment.

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5 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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