How To Treat and Prevent Burns -- and When To Seek Care

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While the summer months bring fun, they can also be a time when injuries occur -- including burns.

Burns are skin injuries that can be caused by heat, chemicals, or electricity. Hot liquids such as hot bath water, foods and drinks are the most common cause of burns in children. In the summertime, burns can result from sun exposure, camp fires, sparklers and fireworks.

Symptoms arising from burns include pain, redness, swelling, blistering and/or peeling of the skin. Someone with severe burns may also develop breathing difficulty, decreased alertness or loss of consciousness and signs of shock.

Types of Burns

Burns are classified by their depth. The depth and size of burns are important in determining their treatment.

The major types of burns include:

  • Superficial (first-degree): These burns are limited to only the top layer of skin. They result in redness, pain and mild swelling of the skin without blisters. Sunburns (without blistering) are a common example. These burns heal on their own and can be cared for at home.
  • Partial-thickness (second-degree): These burns include damage to the outer layer of the skin and the layer underneath. The burned area will appear red with blisters, and skin can swell and be painful. Partial thickness burns typically heal over a period of two to three weeks, often without scarring. However, healing may take longer for more severe partial thickness burns.
  • Full thickness (third-degree):These are the deepest and most severe type of burns.They involve all layers of the skin and may include damage to structures such as the hair follicles, sweat glands and nerve endings. Full thickness burns can appear waxy-white, charred, or leathery brown. Although they are severe, they may not be painful at all due to damage to nerve endings under the skin. These burns require specialized care, including skin grafting.

First Aid for Minor Burns

Minor burns (including sunburns) can be cared for at home.

When a minor burn occurs:

  • Run cool water over the burned area or apply a cool compress for a few minutes.
  • Over-the-counter analgesics -- such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen -- can help reduce pain.
  • Clean the burn gently -- do not scrub -- with water and mild soap.
  • An antibiotic ointment, such as Neosporin, or aloe vera can be applied to the wound.
  • Sterile non-stick gauze pads or bandages can be used to protect burns; these dressings should be changed daily. However, bandages may be a choking hazard for very young children and should not be used in this age group.

Blisters that are intact should be left alone and not drained or opened. In addition, grease, butter, powders or other home remedies should not be applied to burns, as they can make the injury deeper and raise the risk of infection. 

When To Seek Care For a Burn

Although many burns can be cared for at home, some require immediate medical attention.

For large partial- or full-thickness burns, house fire burns, or any burns associated with trouble breathing, loss or change in consciousness, or other signs of a life-threatening emergency -- call 911 for immediate assistance.

Seek emergency care for: Burns to the eyes/eyelids; burns going all the way around an arm/leg or crossing a joint; burns to the genital area; blistering burns to the hands, feet, face or scalp; any burns that appear full thickness (skin is waxy white, charred or leathery); electrical burns; burns from chemicals such as acids; burns causing severe pain that doesn’t lessen after taking over-the-counter pain relievers; burns that appear infected; burns associated with any other serious symptoms.

For smaller partial-thickness burns without urgent symptoms, contact your doctor for guidance. Superficial burns and minor partial-thickness burns can often be cared for at home.

Burns that are managed at home should be monitored closely for signs of infection. These may include spreading redness or red streaks around the burn, foul-smelling odor, pus draining from the burn site, increasing swelling, pain and fever. Seek medical attention right away if any of these symptoms arise.

Preventing Summertime Burns

Taking steps to prevent burns and other injuries will help to ensure a fun and healthy summer. Here are a few tips for preventing burns that occur most commonly in the summer:

Sun protection

Spending time outdoors is a delight of summer, but remember to protect skin against the sun’s rays.

The best line of defense against sunburn is covering up -- stay in the shade and cover your skin with protective clothing or a hat.

Apply a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or greater to exposed areas of the skin. Reapply sunscreen every two hours, as well as after swimming or sweating.

Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight.

Fireworks safety

The American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical professional groups urge families to recognize the dangers of consumer fireworks and avoid using them.

More than a third of injuries resulting from consumer firework use -- including burns to the hands, arms, head, face, and eyes -- affect children younger than 15 years.

While they seem relatively harmless, even sparklers burn at temperatures higher than 1,200 degrees F -- hot enough to melt some metals, and certainly hot enough to cause severe burns.

Consider substituting glow sticks, especially for younger children, who are at highest risk for burns from sparklers.


Sources:

National Institute of General Medical Sciences

National Institutes of Health -- Medline

HealthyChild.org

Reviewed by Jerri Rose, MD, Program Director, University Hospitals Pediatric Emergency Medicine

Related links

To keep you and your family safe and healthy, UH provides 24/7 emergency care at our emergency room locations. Find a location near you.

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