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About Burns

The severity of a burn is determined by its effect on skin and tissue. There are three categories of burns: first-degree, or superficial burns; second-degree, or partial thickness burns; and third-degree, or full thickness burns.

First Degree

A first-degree burn involves only the outermost layer of skin and is the least severe type of burn. The skin is still intact, but the area of the burn may be red and warm to the touch. There may also be small blisters and swelling. Although this type of burn may be painful, it is not life-threatening.

Guidelines from the American Burn Association for treating a first-degree burn:

  • Stop the burning process by running cool (not cold) water over the area for at least five minutes. Do not use ice; this may damage the skin further.
  • Remove any jewelry, watches rings or clothing around the burned area.
  • Apply a sterile gauze bandage or clean cloth, wrapping loosely to reduce pressure on the burn.
  • Even a small burn may become infected. To reduce the risk of infection, do not break any blisters that may form.
  • If the burn is painful, take an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Small burns may also benefit from soothing lotions that contain aloe vera. Do not use home remedies like butter or ointments—these substances trap heat in the tissue and may worsen the burn.
  • Seek medical attention if the burn is accompanied by a persistent fever or pain that is not relieved by medication, or if the area of redness extends beyond the edge of the burn. You should also seek medical attention if the burn is larger than the size of the palm.

As a burn heals:

  • Monitor the area for the signs of infection: redness extending beyond the burn area, changes in appearance of the wound or a slight fever that is not relieved by over-the-counter medication.
  • Itching is normal as a burn begins to heal. Apply lotion frequently to keep the skin moist and decrease itching. If itching becomes severe, you may use an over-the-counter medication like Benadryl.
  • Keep the wound clean by changing dressings daily. Protect the burn from direct sunlight.

Second Degree

A second-degree (partial-thickness) burn occurs when the second layer of skin (dermis) is burned. The burn may be very red, with blisters and swelling. If the burn is smaller than 2-3 inches in diameter, it may be treated as a minor burn using the guidelines shown above. If the burn is larger, or is located on the feet, face, eye, ears, major joints or groin, seek medical attention.

Third Degree

A third-degree (full-thickness) burn involves all layers of the skin and can lead to permanent tissue damage. The skin may appear charred, blackened or white, with a dry or leathery texture. Seek medical attention immediately in cases of third-degree burn.

Source: American Burn Association