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First Aid for Burns: What to Do

Among accidents that can happen totally unexpectedly, a burn injury is one incident that can cause immediate distress. In the face of such incidents, having a clear understanding of first aid for burns can be the difference between swift recovery and prolonged suffering.

What are the best first aid practices for burns?

Short Answer: The best first aid practices for burns include assessing the situation, cooling the burn, covering the burn, pain management, hydration, seeking medical help while avoiding popping of blisters.

  • When providing first aid for burns, it's crucial to follow specific steps to minimize pain, prevent infection, and promote healing.
  • Remember, the severity of the burn will determine the appropriate actions to take.
  • While these first aid practices are beneficial for initial care, professional medical evaluation is essential, especially for severe burns.
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Understanding the Different Types and Severity of Burns

Burns can vary widely in their causes, appearances, and severity, each requiring a distinct approach to first aid and treatment. Recognizing the different types of burns and assessing their severity is paramount for providing appropriate care and ensuring the best possible outcomes for the injured individual.

First-Degree Burns (Superficial Burns)

Superficial burns affect only the top layer of skin. They typically result in redness, minor swelling, and pain. Sunburn is a common example of a first-degree burn. First-degree burns usually heal within a week without scarring. Cool the burn with cold water and apply a soothing cream or aloe vera as first aid.

Second-Degree Burns (Partial-Thickness Burns)

These burns affect both the outer and underlying layers of skin. They cause redness, blistering, intense pain, and possibly swelling. These burns can lead to scarring if not properly treated. Second-degree burns might require medical attention, especially if they cover a large area or are on sensitive body parts. As first aid, cool the burn with cold water, cover it loosely with a sterile non-stick dressing, and seek medical help.

Third-Degree Burns (Full-Thickness Burns)

These are the most severe burns, involving all layers of skin and potentially underlying tissues. The burned area might appear white, charred, or leathery.

Nerves could be damaged, leading to numbness. These burns require immediate medical attention and can necessitate surgery, skin grafts, and intensive care. Cover the burn with a clean, non-stick dressing, and seek immediate medical help as first aid.

Understanding the severity of burns goes beyond their appearance. Factors such as the size of the burn, its location on the body, and the age and health of the individual influence the appropriate course of action.

How to Administer First Aid for Burns in Emergency Situations

In high-pressure emergency scenarios, knowing how to provide immediate and effective first aid for burns can make a critical difference in the outcome for the injured person. Here's a step-by-step guide:

Prioritize Safety

Ensure your safety and that of others before approaching the burn victim. If the burn resulted from a chemical spill or electrical source, ensure the area is safe before rendering assistance.

Stop the Source

If the burn is caused by flames or a hot object, remove the person from the source of the burn to prevent further injury.

Cool the Burn

Immediately run cold water over the burn for 10-20 minutes. This helps reduce pain, limit tissue damage, and prevent the burn from worsening. Do not use ice or very cold water, as they can damage the skin.

Cover the Burn

After cooling, loosely cover the burn with a clean, non-stick sterile dressing or a clean cloth. This prevents contamination and reduces the risk of infection.

Assess the Severity

Determine the severity of the burn based on its depth, size, and location. This assessment will guide your next steps.

Pain Relief

If available and safe, administer over-the-counter pain relievers to help alleviate discomfort.

Seek Medical Help

For severe burns (second-degree or third-degree), burns on the face, hands, feet, genitals, or burns caused by chemicals or electricity, seek immediate medical attention. Call emergency services or take the person to the nearest medical facility.

Do Not Pop Blisters

Avoid popping any blisters that may have formed on the burn. Blisters serve as protective barriers against infection.

Avoid Home Remedies

Refrain from using oils, butter, or other home remedies on the burn, as they can worsen the injury.

Loose Clothing

If clothing is stuck to the burn, do not attempt to remove it. Cut around the clothing to prevent further damage.

Encourage Hydration

Encourage the person to drink water to stay hydrated, as burns can lead to fluid loss.

Provide Emotional Support

Burn injuries can be traumatic. Offer reassurance and emotional support to the person throughout the process.

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When to Seek Medical Attention for Burns

Determining when to seek professional medical care for burns is essential to ensure proper treatment, prevent complications, and promote healing.

Here's when you should seek medical help for burns:

Severe Burns (Second-Degree and Third-Degree)

Second-degree burns covering a large area or affecting sensitive body parts (face, hands, feet) should be assessed by a medical professional. Third-degree burns, regardless of size or location, always require immediate medical attention due to their severe nature. 

Burns Caused by Chemicals or Electricity

Burns resulting from contact with chemicals or electrical sources should be evaluated by a medical professional. Chemical burns can continue to cause damage even after the initial contact.

Inhalation of Smoke or Toxic Fumes

If the burn victim has inhaled smoke or toxic fumes, seek medical care promptly, even if the external burn seems minor. Inhalation injuries can lead to respiratory complications that require medical intervention.

Burns in Young Children or Elderly Individuals

Children and the elderly are more vulnerable to burn complications. Even seemingly minor burns should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Burns That Show Signs of Infection

If a burn becomes red, swollen, warm, or starts oozing pus, it could be infected. Seek medical care to prevent the infection from spreading.

Burns That Cause Numbness or Discoloration

Burns that result in numbness, tingling, or changes in skin color could indicate nerve or blood vessel damage, requiring medical assessment.

Burns That Do Not Heal

If a burn shows no signs of improvement after a few days or starts to worsen, consult a healthcare provider.

Pre-existing Health Conditions

Individuals with pre-existing health conditions (diabetes, immune disorders) should seek medical attention for burns to prevent complications.

Uncertainty About Severity

If you're unsure about the burn's severity or the appropriate course of action, it's safer to consult a medical professional. It's always better to err on the side of caution when it comes to burn injuries, as professional evaluation can lead to better outcomes and a smoother recovery process.

Tips for Preventing Burns and Promoting Recovery from Burn Injuries

Prevention and proper care are essential in minimizing the risk of burn injuries and ensuring a smooth recovery.

Preventing Burns

  • Install smoke detectors and fire extinguishers at home. Practice fire safety in the kitchen, with candles, and around open flames
  • Be cautious with hot beverages and foods. Use spill-resistant containers and keep hot liquids away from edges
  • Keep cords and outlets in good condition, and avoid overloading electrical sockets
  • Childproof your home to prevent young children from accessing dangerous items like stoves, ovens, and hot objects
  • Use oven mitts, pot holders, and proper utensils when cooking. Turn pot handles away from the stove's edge
  • Wear sunscreen to prevent sunburns, and stay hydrated to avoid heat-related burns
  • Use protective equipment when dealing with chemicals and follow safety guidelines carefully
  • Wear suitable clothing when cooking or working around heat sources. Avoid loose-fitting clothes that could catch fire

Promoting Recovery

  • Adhere to the instructions provided by medical professionals for dressing changes, medications, and follow-up appointments
  • Keep the burn area clean and dry to prevent infection. Follow recommended cleaning routines and change dressings as advised
  • Protect the healing skin from sun exposure to prevent further damage and discoloration.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated, aiding the body's natural healing process
  • Consume a balanced diet rich in vitamins and nutrients to support tissue repair and healing.
  • Consult your healthcare provider before engaging in physical activities that could affect the burn area
  • Avoid using harsh soaps, chemicals, or anything that could irritate the healing skin
  • Discuss scar management options with your healthcare provider, which might include creams, silicone sheets, or massage
  • Recovering from burns can be emotionally challenging. Seek support from friends, family, or professionals if needed
  • Healing takes time. Be patient with the recovery process and follow medical advice for the best outcome

The SURVIVAL Burn Module is designed as a "grab and go" pack for workplaces at high risk of burns.

Click here for a guide to natural remedies for burns.

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Related Questions

Are there any instances where you should not use cold water to cool a burn?

While cold water is generally effective for cooling burns, it should not be used for chemical burns or burns caused by electricity. In these cases, seek immediate medical attention.

Why is it important not to pop blisters that form on a burn?

Popping blisters on burns can increase the risk of infection and slow down the healing process. Blisters act as natural protective barriers for the underlying tissue.


In the realm of burn injuries, knowing how to administer proper first aid is a powerful tool. From cooling burns promptly to understanding their types and severity, your actions can significantly impact recovery.


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