How to Treat a Burn
Quick action can help relieve pain and prevent further injury
Most of us have had the misfortune to touch a hot pan on the stove and suffer a small but painful burn. These burns can usually be treated at home, but other burns are serious and require immediate medical help.
Here’s a handy guide to treating heat burns as well as chemical and electrical burns.
Minor heat burns
First degree burns are marked by mild pain and red, swollen skin without blisters. With second-degree burns the skin is generally swollen, blistered, and painful. Here’s what you should do:
- Run it under cold water. It’s probably unnecessary to say, but get away from the source of heat. Then run the affected area under cool water. “If you act quickly, you may be able to prevent a burn from progressing,” says Barbara Caracci, director of program development and training at the National Safety Council’s first aid programs division. “Pain means the skin is still burning, so keep the water running until the pain stops.” You can also wrap a towel or sheet soaked in cool water around the burn.
- Remove clothing and jewelry near the area, but seek medical help if clothing is stuck to the burned skin: Removing it could cause more damage.
- Don’t use ice, Vaseline, or lotions on the burn. No matter how tempting, avoid Vaseline, butter, oil, or lotions; they can trap heat in the skin. And even if your parents always ran for some ice cubes when you were burned, don’t use ice, either. It’s too cold and could cause tissue injury.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) if necessary.
- See a doctor if signs of infection crop up. Over the next few days, keep the burn clean, cover with a non-stick bandage and monitor the site for infection, which include pain, swelling, and red streaks from the injured skin. If blisters develop (often the case with second degree burns), keep them intact. “Popping a blister is never a good idea: It gives bacteria a port of entry,” Caracci says.
Third-degree heat burns
Third-degree burns, which are common in fires, require emergency treatment.
“A third degree burn causes damage to all layers of the skin — down to the bone — and looks white or charred,” says Marc Leavey, M.D., an internal medicine physician in Lutherville, Maryland explains. “There may be little or no pain because the nerves in the skin are destroyed, but immediate medical attention is required.” Here’s what to do:
- Call 911 if the burn is larger than 3 inches or it’s a third-degree burn (the skin may look white or charred black and may be numb to the touch).
- Don’t apply water to a third-degree burn.
- Perform CPR if the person has stopped breathing. If you don’t know how, the 911 operator will walk you through it.
Related: Is Your Fireplace Safe?
Cords and outlets can cause electrical burns, which occur when a person is exposed to an electrical current. Forgetting to switch off the power before making home repairs or installations — or dropping a plugged-in appliance into water — are common ways people get injured by electricity.
Although some electrical burns look minor, they can cause extensive internal damage to the heart, muscles, or brain, so take any electrical burn seriously. Here’s what to do:
- Call 911 if a family member or someone else is injured by electricity. “Electric burns usually have an entrance and exit wound, and require medical care to assess and care for the internal injuries,” says Leavey.
- Do not touch anyone who is attached to a wire and shaking. The electric current can be transferred and you can be jolted, too. Instead, unplug the appliance and/or turn off the power supply from the circuit breaker and return to the victim.
- Use a dry towel or wooden stick that the victim can grab to be pulled away from the cord or live wire, and make sure you’re not standing on a wet surface.
- Perform CPR if needed. Check for signs of life (breathing, pulse or movement), and start CPR if the victim isn’t breathing. If he regains consciousness, “stay calm and reassuring until help arrives,” Leavey says.
Related: 6 Things Not to Do in an Emergency
Chemicals like bleach and ammonia in common household products including toilet, drain and oven cleaner can burn the skin and eyes and cause plenty of damage that isn’t visible. Here’s what to do:
- Call 911.
- Flush the area with a stream of cool, running water. First responders have toxic-specific substances to treat the burned area, but in the meantime, keep the water running.
- Chemical burns to the eyes are especially serious. “Call 911, grab a pitcher of water with a spout and flush, flush, flush the eyes until help arrives,” Caracci urges. “If just one eye is affected, be very careful not to contaminate the other eye. Turn the affected person’s head so excess water flows into the sink — not into the other eye.”
- Put on gloves and brush off any chemical powder. If the source of the chemical was a powder, brush it off, taking care to avoid the eyes, and flush with plenty of water.
If the person goes into shock
Bad burns can trigger shock, which means not enough blood and oxygen are being circulated to the organs. Suspect shock if the pupils dilate and the skin is cool and clammy or very pale/gray. Rapid or shallow breathing are other signs. If untreated, shock can permanently damage organs and even cause death. What to do:
- Call 911. Then have the person lie on the floor.
- Elevate the legs. The person’s feet should be about a foot higher than his head, and keep the person flat, warm and comfortable.
- Do not offer anything to eat or drink. Vomiting is another possible symptom, so you’ll want to keep the airway clear.
- If breathing stops, begin CPR.