Treatments for Burns on the Skin

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Burns of the skin are a common everyday hazard. They may be caused by open flame, scalding liquids, heated surfaces, chemicals, or any one of a number of other sources. Regardless of background or occupation, we are all frequently exposed to environments where burns can occur. Should you burn yourself, your treatment will be based on the severity and extent of your injuries.

Judging the Severity and Extent of a Burn

  • Burn severity is broken down into 3 basic categories:

    First-degree burns are the least serious, and are characterized by effects that reach only the outermost layer of skin. Typically, burns of this nature cause pain, redness and swelling.

    Second-degree burns are sometimes referred to as partial thickness burns. They affect both the outer layer of skin and the layer directly below. Burns of this nature cause pain, redness and swelling, accompanied by blistering of the skin.

    Third-degree burns are also known as full thickness burns. Injuries of this level extend deep into underlying tissue, and produce blackened, white or charred skin, along with numbness due to loss of nerve endings.

    In addition to assessing the degree of your injury, health professionals will also assess its extent. The extent of your injury will help determine whether it is considered major or minor.

    First-degree burns are considered minor unless they affect a major joint, or cover significant portions of the face, feet, hands, buttocks or groin. Second-degree burns are considered minor if the site of injury is less than 3 inches in diameter.

Treating Minor Burns

  • You may be in a position to treat a minor burn yourself. If you choose to do so, make sure to follow accepted treatment guidelines:

    Cool the burn area through your best available means. If possible use cold running water. If this is not possible, use cold compresses or submerge the injury in cold water. Continue cold treatment for at least 5 minutes, or until the pain of the burn eases. Do not place ice directly on the site of a burn.

    Use sterile gauze to loosely wrap the burn. Do not put pressure on the site of injury, and do not use fluffy or sticky cotton.

    Take over-the-counter medications for pain. Examples include ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen and naproxen. If you are treating a child or a teenager, do not use aspirin.

    Be aware that you should never put butter or ointments on a burn. If any blisters are present, do not break them open.

Treating Major Burns

  • Larger second-degree burns and all third-degree burns are considered major, and may be life-threatening. If you or someone in your care has a major burn, call 911 immediately. Make sure to leave the source of the fire, but do not attempt to remove any burned clothing. Prior to the arrival of emergency technicians, elevate the site of the burn if possible. Do not attempt to submerge large major burns. Doing so significantly raises the chance of shock. The National Institutes of Health have issued guidelines for treatment for major and minor burns. You may access this information in the Resources section below.

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