How (and when) to treat a burn at home

February 20, 2017 | by Siva Krishnan, MD
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

Eventually, you’ll probably get burned.

Not metaphorically, either. Minor burns — such as when your knuckle touches the edge of a hot oven door or a hot curling iron accidentally touches your forehead — are common injuries.

There are first-degree burns, like the minor burns I mentioned. And then there are burns.

If you end up with a more serious burn, you may wonder if your injury is too severe to treat at home. To help you decide when to seek medical attention, it helps to know the levels of burn severity.

Mayo Clinic offers a clear breakdown of first, second and third-degree burn symptoms:

  • 1st-degree burn. It’s the least serious, involving only the outer layer of skin. It may cause redness, swelling and some pain. If a first-degree burn covers much of the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint, though, seek emergency medical attention.
  • 2nd-degree burn. This burn is more serious. It may cause red, white or splotchy skin, swelling, pain and blisters. If the second-degree burn is 3 inches in diameter or smaller, treat it as you would treat a minor burn. If the burned area is larger or covers the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint, treat it as a major burn and get medical help immediately.
  • 3rd-degree burn. These are the most serious, and involve all layers of the skin and underlying fat. Muscle and even bone may be affected. Burned areas may be charred black or white. The burned person may have difficulty breathing or experience carbon monoxide poisoning and other toxic effects, if he or she also inhaled smoke.

If the burn is first-degree or a small second-degree, there are steps you can take immediately to treat the injury at home. offers these first aid tips that can be used for anyone — children or adults:

  • As quickly as possible, soak the burn in cool water. Run cool water over the burn long enough to cool the area and relieve pain. Don’t use ice on a burn, it may delay healing. Also, don’t rub a burn, as it can increase blistering.
  • Cool any smoldering clothing immediately by soaking with water, then remove any clothing from the burned area unless it is stuck firmly to the skin. In that case, cut away as much clothing as possible.
  • If the injured area is not oozing, cover the burn with a sterile gauze pad or a clean, dry cloth.
  • If the burn is oozing, cover it lightly with sterile gauze if available and immediately seek medical attention. If you don’t have sterile gauze, cover the burn with a clean sheet or towel.
  • Do not put butter, grease or powder on a burn. It could make the injury worse. For anything more serious than a superficial burn, or if redness and pain continue for more than a few hours, consult a physician.

Seek immediate medical attention in the case of a third-degree burn. Electrical burns and burns of the hands, mouth and genitals should also receive immediate medical attention.

Learn more about emergency care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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