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How to Properly Treat a Burn

Burn injuries in the summer aren't just from sun exposure; fireworks, grilling, fire pits, and campfires all present burn hazards. If you spend time outdoors in the summer, get to know how to treat burns! You may be far away from medical assistance when camping and acting quickly will help prevent infection from setting in.

Burn Injury When to Call a Doctor

When to Call a Doctor

Not all burns are the same, but all should be treated as serious. Let's begin with what you should do if you experience a severe burn:

Call 911 or go to your nearest Emergency Room if:

  • The burn penetrates all layers of the skin.
  • The skin is leathery or charred looking, with white, brown or black patches.
  • The hands, feet, face, or genitals are burned.
  • Burns cover more than 10 percent of the person's body.
  • The person is an infant or a senior citizen.

Medical help isn't instantaneous, of course. What do you do while you're waiting for a doctor to arrive? Do you know how to recognize different degrees of burns, and how to treat each of them?

Treating Burns and Burned Skin

For All Types of Burns:

1. Stop the burning immediately!

  • Put out the fire or stop the person's contact with hot liquid, steam, or other material.
  • Help the person "stop, drop and roll" to smother any flames.
  • Remove smoldering material from the person.
  • Remove hot or burned clothing. If clothing sticks to skin, cut or tear around it.
  • Remove constrictive clothing and accessories such as jewelry and belts.

Once you have done all of this, take the following steps depending on the type of burn:

First Degree Burns: Affecting the Top Layer of the Skin

1. Cool the Burn

  • Hold the burned skin under cool, not cold, running water or immerse in cool water until the pain subsides. Use cool compresses if running water isn't available.

2. Protect the Burn

3. Treat Pain

4. Know When to See a Doctor

Seek medical help if: 

  • You see signs of an infection, such as increased pain, redness, swelling, fever or oozing.
  • The person needs a tetanus or booster shot, depending on the date of the last injection. A tetanus booster should be given every 10 years. 
  • The burn blister is larger than 2 inches or begins to ooze. 
  • If the pain worsens, or redness and pain last more than a few hours. 

The doctor will examine the burn and may prescribe antibiotics and pain relievers, including topical pain relief and creams designed specifically to treat burns.

Treating Burn Arm Wrap Cool Compress

Second Degree Burns: Affecting the Top Two Layers of Skin

1. Cool the Burn

  • Immerse the burn in cool water for 10 or 15 minutes. Use compresses if running water isn't available.
  • Do NOT apply ice, as it can lower body temperature and cause further pain and damage.
  • Do NOT break blisters or apply butter or ointments, as they can cause infection.

2. Protect the Burn

3. Prevent Shock

  • Unless the person has a head, neck or leg injury, be sure to lay the person flat and elevate feet about 12 inches. Elevate the burned area above the heart level, if possible, and cover the person with a coat or blanket. 

4. See a Doctor of Needed

  • The doctor can test your burn severity, prescribe antibiotics and burn creams, and administer a tetanus shot.

Doctor Applying Wound Cream to Third Degree Burn

Third Degree Burns: The Most Severe Burn

1. Call 911 immediately! 

  • 3rd degree burns need to be treated as a medical emergency, as they can become serious and life threatening quickly. 

2. Protect the Burn Area

  • Cover the burned area loosely with sterile, nonstick bandages, or for large areas, use a sheet or other material that won't leave lint in the wound. 
  • Separate burned toes and fingers with dry, sterile dressings.
  • Do NOT soak the burn in water or apply ointments or butter, as these can cause infection. 

3. Preventing Shock

  • Unless the person has a head, neck, or leg injury, or it would cause discomfort, lay the person flat.
  • Elevate their feet about 12 inches and elevate the burn area above the heart level, if possible. 
  • Cover the person with a coat or blanket.
  • For an airway burn, do not place a pillow under the person's head when the person is lying down. This can close the airway.
  • For a person with a facial burn, have them sit up.
  • Check their pulse and breathing to monitor for shock until emergency personnel arrive. 

4. See a Doctor

  • Lastly, 3rd degree burns always need to be treated by a doctor or medical professional. Doctors will give oxygen and fluid if needed, and treat the burn.