How to Treat a Burn 

 February 16, 2016

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Most burns that occur at home or work are minor injuries that can be treated with simple first aid. For more severe burns, it may be necessary to seek medical care.

Several types of burns can occur. Heat, or thermal, burns are caused by fire, steam, and hot objects or liquids. Burns can be caused by cold temperatures or contact with electrical sources or lightning. Household and industrial chemicals can burn the skin. Foods such as chili peppers contain a substance that can irritate skin. Radiation burns can be caused by the sun, tanning booths, x-rays, or radiation therapy. Friction burns can result from contact with a hard surface, such as a road, carpet, or floor.

Burns are defined by their degree. First-degree burns affect the first layer of skin. Second-degree burns can affect the first and second layers of skin or deeper skin layers. Third-degree burns impact all skin layers and tissue under the skin. They always require medical treatment. Fourth-degree burns affect muscle, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, or bone. They also require medical treatment.

If you or someone else gets burned, take immediate action:

•    Cover the flames with a blanket or water to put them out. If your clothing catches fire, stop, drop, and roll.

•    For a burn caused by a hot liquid, run cool water over the burn for 10 to 20 minutes, but do not use ice.

•    If a burn is caused by cold temperatures, warm small areas of the body by blowing warm air on them, covering them with clothing, or putting them in warm (not hot) water.

•    If someone suffers an electrical burn, separate the person from the source of electricity and check for a pulse and breathing. If the person does not have a heartbeat or is not breathing, call 911.

•    If someone is burned by a chemical, find out what it was and call your local poison control center or the National Poison Control Hotline.

•    For a burn caused by tar or hot plastic, run cold water over the material to cool it.

•    Look for other injuries.

•    Remove any clothing or jewelry, unless it is stuck to the burned skin.

•    If you need medical treatment, go to your doctor or the emergency room as soon as possible. Place a clean, dry cloth over the burn to avoid infection. Do not put any cream or medicine on the burn so the doctor can assess it. Ice or butter can damage the tissue and should not be used.

•    To treat a first-degree burn or sunburn at home, cover it with a clean cloth and take cool showers. Use a lotion with aloe vera or hydrocortisone cream to relieve pain and swelling. Chamomile can help with a sunburn.

•    You can take an over-the-counter medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin for pain or fever. Follow the instructions on the package carefully.  Consult your doctor if you are pregnant or you are treating a child.

•    You can put skin lotion on a burn as long as it does not have a lot of fluid or fresh scabs.

•    An antihistamine can help with itching.

•    After two or three days, you can put the juice from an aloe leaf on a first- or minor second-degree burn to help it heal.

•    Keep the burn covered while it is healing. Protect the burn from the cold to prevent frostbite and from the sun to prevent sunburn.

•    Smoking decreases blood supply and slows healing. You should not smoke while your burn is healing.

•    Call your doctor if the pain increases or if you have difficulty breathing. Check the burn for signs of infection and call your doctor if you see any. Contact your doctor if your symptoms become more frequent or severe.


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