Treating and Preventing Burns

Here’s the good news: Over the past few decades, the number and severity of burn injuries we see in the emergency department has declined. This is a result of public awareness campaigns about fire safety, increasing use of smoke detectors in homes, and initiatives to improve product safety.

However, we still see burn injuries that could have been prevented. When burns do occur, they happen most often at home. About half of these are from fire or an open flame. Scalding, friction and injuries from electricity and chemicals make up the rest. Most of these burns can be avoided with a few simple safety precautions. Knowing how to treat mild burns could save you a trip to the emergency department. Knowing when to get help can save a life.

There are three categories of burns: first, second and third degree.

  • First-degree burns are superficial injuries to the epidermis—the first layer of skin. These burns produce redness without blisters and typically heal in a few days without scarring. In most cases, first-degree burns can be treated at home by running cool water over the area of the burn for at least five minutes. Use a sterile bandage to cover the area afterward. Over-the-counter pain medications will help relieve the pain. First-degree burns do not require medical intervention.
  • Second-degree burns are more complex. These injuries involve damage to varying depths of the dermis. They produce blisters and may scar depending on how deep the injury is. In some cases, these burns can be treated at home, but burns to the hands, face, groin, buttocks and joints need to be evaluated by a physician. More on why in a moment.
  • Third-degree burns are extremely serious and require immediate medical attention. These burns can damage or destroy the deepest layer of skin and tissues including bones, nerves and tendons. They leave significant scarring and sometimes result in loss of function. The risk of infection from serious burns is high. If you suspect a third-degree burn, call 911 or go directly to the emergency department for medical help.

Happily, the most serious burns are less common today. Most burns can be treated at home with cool water and a clean bandage. If in doubt about the severity of a burn, it is always a good idea to get an evaluation by your physician.

Six Simple Steps for Burn Prevention

  1. Do not smoke in bed. (Better yet, don’t smoke at all.)
  2. Check the batteries on your smoke detectors regularly.
  3. Douse food or grease fires with baking soda or cover with a lid or another pot. Do not pour water on a grease or electrical fire.
  4. Keep pots away from the edges of counters where children can reach them.
  5. Set the household water heater at 120 degrees or lower.
  6. Leave fireworks displays to the professionals.

Three Burn Care Myths

  • Do not ice a burn. This can cause further damage to the wound and a dramatic reduction in body temperature. Instead of ice, apply cool compresses or rinse the burn under cool water.
  • Egg whites, butter and lotions can cause infection. Instead, use an antibiotic cream on the burn.
  • Never break blisters. Broken blisters are vulnerable to infection.

Make an Appointment

For more information or to schedule an appointment with a wound care specialist, call our scheduling line: 

202-295-0551