How to Treat a Burn

How to Treat a Burn

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  • Burns are no laughing matter. Whether it’s unconsciously grasping a hot pan or having your fingers accidentally touch the flames of a campfire, this type of body tissue damage can lead to pain and discomfort that can worsen if not treated
  • Home remedies are ideal for small, superficial burns. However, for third- and fourth-degree burns, or those that cover a large area of your skin, immediate medical attention is crucial. If not attended to, these types of burns may lead to worse injuries and may affect other bodily functions

Burns are no laughing matter. Whether it's unconsciously grasping a hot pan or having your fingers accidentally touch the flames of a campfire, this type of body tissue damage can lead to pain and discomfort that can worsen if not treated.

Burns are caused primarily by heat or fire, though other elements can play a role as well. Scalds, caused by hot liquids, fire, steam and flammable liquids and gases, are most common. Electricity, sunlight (sunburn), chemicals and radiation are other potential causes. Inhalation injury, caused by inhaling smoke, is another type of burn.1

How to Treat a Burn: First-Aid or Emergency Help?

There are many circumstances that can lead to burns. House fires, kitchen accidents, vehicle accidents, and electrical malfunctions are some examples.2 Most minor burns can be treated at home and there are various solutions you can try (which are discussed below).

However, there are cases when it's crucial to seek emergency care for a burn. Some groups of people, like young children, the elderly and pregnant women, are also advised to always have burns checked. Ideally, according to WebMD an the Mayo Clinic, seek emergency treatment or a doctor if the burn:3,4

Has a diameter larger than 3 inches

Covers the the hand, foot, face, groin or buttocks, or affects a major joint

Appears dry and leathery or is charred brown, white or black patches

Has penetrated deeply or has penetrated all layers of the skin

If your injury doesn't seem serious and does not fall under these characteristics, then the remedies below may help alleviate the pain and heal the injury.

Burn Types and Levels: Classification and Treatment

The amount of damage that can be caused by a burn is based on its type, where it's located, the depth and how large of a body surface area it affects. The primary classifications of burns are based on their depth:5,6

1. First-degree burn — Pain, redness and a mild amount of swelling are the primary indicators. This is a superficial injury and causes local skin inflammation. The affected area can be tender to touch. Sunburn is one example of a first-degree burn.

2. Second-degree burn — The injury is deeper and in addition to redness, pain and inflammation, you can also see blistering of the skin.

3. Third-degree burn — This involves all layers of the skin, thereby killing that particular skin area. Since the blood vessels and nerves are severely damaged, there's often no pain felt. The skin appears white and leathery.

4. Fourth-degree burn — This is the most severe type, and occurs when the damage has spread to the bones and joints.

First- and second-degree burns can be treated at home in most instances, but third- and fourth-degree burns should be examined by a professional. Below are some steps on how to treat a minor burn (steam burn, grease/oil burn, oven burn and hot water burn).7

How to Treat a Minor (First- or Second-Degree) Burn

1. Run cool water over the burn. This will prevent further injury from occurring and will also provide soothing relief. Aside from alleviating the pain, this will stop the burn from progressing and causing further damage to deeper skin levels. Do this for about 20 minutes so the skin cools down.

2. Clean the affected area. Use a mild soap for this, and take care not to scrub. This will help infection from occurring, which can prolong the healing time and worsen the injury.

3. Use a bandage if needed. Most first- and second-degree burns do not need one, but special exemptions can be made if the burn is located in a place where chafing may occur or where dirt can get in easily (such as the sole of the feet). If the burn has blistered and oozed, a bandage may keep infections at bay. Just remember to wrap it loosely. Do not use sticky bandages directly on the wound. 

4. Do not expose the affected area to the sun.This can help minimize the discomfort and the risk of the burn worsening. If you must go out, then cover the burn with a loose bandage or wear comfortable loose-fitting clothes.

Apply raw organic honey preferably Manuka8 or aloe vera. Both of these substances are known for their antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies support their potential healing abilities for this type of injury.9,10 With the use of honey, studies show that honey dressings are more sterile, heal faster and have better outcomes than commercial products like silver sulfadiazine.11

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How to Treat a Third-Degree Burn

For severe burns, a variety of treatments may be needed, which can involve medications, wound dressings, surgery and therapy. The primary goal is to control pain, eliminate dead tissue, prevent infection, minimize scarring and bring back function. Third-degree burns may need to be treated at specialized burn centers. Some treatment options for third-degree burns include:12

Intravenous (IV) fluids — These will help prevent dehydration and organ failure.

Water-based treatments — One example is ultrasound mist therapy, which is done to clean and stimulate the wound tissue.

Burn creams and ointments — Topical products like bacitracin and silver sulfadiazine (Silvadene) are used to prevent infection and prepare the wound to close. Make sure you know the risks involved when using these conventional medications, though.

Dressings — There are specialty wound dressings available that can facilitate healing of the wound.

Skin grafts can be used to cover large wounds. Patients may also require emotional support and months of physical therapy to fully recover. Regardless which level they're classified under, all burns should be given immediate attention. Keep in mind that burns are not static — they can mature or worsen. A first-degree burn may spread to deeper structures, turning into second-degree burns.

For example, a sunburn that simply appears red and feels sore on the first day can blister the next morning if not given attention. Second-degree burns can also progress to third-degree. As mentioned, burns can be caused by various elements, such as chemicals.

How to Treat a Chemical Burn

All types of chemical burns need medical attention, but first aid is important until you can seek professional care. Follow these steps:13

1. Rinse the affected area with cool water for at least 20 minutes or until help arrives. Don't use a strong stream of water, and make sure the water does not flow to another part of your body.

2. If there's jewelry or other pieces of clothing sticking to the burn, remove them while irrigating the area – not before. If they've been stuck to the body, do not forcefully remove.

3. Check if the chemical product has any instructions for treating burns.

4. Don't try to neutralize the burn using any alkali or acid. This might lead to a chemical reaction and could make the injury worse. Do not use antibiotic ointment on the burn.

5. If the chemical burn is small, you can wrap it loosely with a clean cloth or a dry, sterile gauze until it can be seen by a professional.

Some chemicals like phenols, dry lime and elemental metals like calcium oxide and potassium should not be irrigated immediately with water. Dry lime should be brushed off from the skin before irrigation, while elemental metals may combust or emit harmful byproducts if they are exposed to water.

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How to Treat Friction Burns

A study in Annals of Burns and Fire Disasters noted that "a friction burn occurs when skin is scraped off by contact with some hard object, such as the road, the floor, etc. It is usually both an abrasion and a heat burn."

These injuries are seen in road traffic accidents or motorcycle and bicycle riders, as well as domestic and sports injuries. Despite being common, they do not need medical assistance — in fact, these are not even included among burns surveys.14 The following are some examples of friction burns and how to treat them.

How to Treat Turf Burn

When people fall hard on turf, it creates friction against their exposed skin, which causes red abrasions. Turf burn usually appears on the knees, palms, thighs and arms. Depending on the fall, the size can be large or small. This is very painful, and touching the affected part is likely to sting. Here's how to treat it:15

1. If there's bleeding, place a clean bandage or dressing against the burn until it stops.

2. Use saline solution or mild soap and water to remove sand and dirt from the wound. Pat with a clean cloth until dry. 

3. Apply aloe vera or Manuka honey, which act as cooling agents and give extra protection against bacteria.

4. Cover the wound with a nonstick medical dressing and cover with a breathable cotton bandage to keep it in place.

How to Treat Rug Burn

Also known as carpet burn, this injury occurs when exposed skin rubs against a carpet or any rough fabric. Here's how to heal it:16

1. Run cold water over the affected area. Do this for five to 10 minutes, every one or two hours.

2. Keep the area dry. Moisture can cause bacteria to breed.

3. Apply aloe vera or honey on the burn to speed up the healing process.

How to Treat Razor Burn

Using blunt razors or not using shaving cream (or any shaving product) to protect the skin during shaving can lead to razor burns. "The Art of Shaving" gives tips to alleviate this problem:17

1. Apply a cold compress or cold water with a few drops of vitamin E, chamomile, lavender or calendula oil to the affected body part. This will reduce redness and relieve irritation.

2. Moisten an alum block with cold water and rub it gently on the area. After a few seconds, wash it with water.

3. Apply a natural moisturizer, such as shea butter. Dab it gently, and do not rub it harshly.

If treating a friction burn, make sure to watch for signs of infection. If the burn is oozing pus, seek professional treatment immediately.

How to Treat a Burn Blister

Burns can lead to blisters, although if the injury is minor, these do not require a physician's care. However, it's best not to puncture a blister unless it is painful, large or potentially irritated. This is because the blister promotes healing, prevents infection, and is essential in keeping the underlying skin clean. Once new skin has formed underneath the area, the fluid is simply absorbed.18

If the blister is really painful or large, make sure to use a sterilized needle to make a small hole and pop it. The fluid inside should be clear. Watch out for redness, or white or yellow pus discharge — these could be signs that the blister is infected,19 and needs to be professionally treated.

However, blisters are very delicate and no matter how careful you are, slight pressure may cause them to pop. If this happens, here's how to treat a burn blister that has popped:20

1. Use water and mild soap to wash the area. Do not use hydrogen peroxide, alcohol or iodine.

2. Smooth down the remaining skin flap over the burnt area.

3. Loosely cover the area with a sterile gauze or bandage. Change it daily until the blister has dried up.

How to Treat an Infected Burn

If bacteria have entered the burn, infection may set in. This usually happens if a blister that has popped is not kept clean. In this case, you may need to seek professional care. Watch out for these symptoms of an infected burn:21

Painful, uncomfortable or smelly wound

A high fever with a temperature of 100.4 degrees F (38 degrees C)

Signs of cellulitis — this is a bacterial infection that causes skin redness and swelling

Treatment per Body Part

The location of a burn is crucial when considering the best treatment option. For example, if the burn is caused by a fire and has affected the face, mouth (lip or tongue), nose or neck, you should be checked for inhalation injury. If there's too much swelling and inflammation, the airway can be obstructed and breathing problems may manifest.

Knowing how to promptly treat a burn on your hand, palm, finger, back of the knees or the groins is also important. This is because these areas have flexion creases. When the burn matures, scarring will occur and the skin may shorten. Hence, full range of motion in that area may not be restored.22

Home Remedies for Burns: Which Ones Really Work?

Aside from raw honey and aloe vera, there are other helpful home remedies for burns that you can turn to. Some of them may even be in your pantry or kitchen already. Here are some examples:23,24,25

Echinacea — This works as a gentle antiseptic that may help prevent the burn from becoming infected. Apply a few diluted drops of echinacea extract to the burn.

Garlic or onion Mash a small amount and apply directly to the burn. Both these plants have antiseptic properties.

Plantain — This is a well-known folk remedy for burns. Whack a plantain leaf with a small hammer and pulverize a small amount of the plant. Place it over the burn.

St. John's wort A German study found that this herb, when made into tinctures, may help ease minor burns and wounds.26 One easy way to make St. John's wort tincture is to steep 1 or two teaspoons of the dried flowering tops in a carrier oil.

Green tea Its anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties may help reduce the size of second-degree burns quicker, according to one animal study.27 Brew the tea, let it cool, and then apply it over the burn with a clean cloth.

Manuka honey — Many studies have shown that the antibacterial, antioxidant, antimicrobial and healing properties of honey, particularly Manuka honey28,29,30 are helpful in treating burns and other wounds. Apply the honey to the burn and cover with a light bandage or gauze. Just make sure that the honey you use is pure, organic honey and not a processed, commercial honey with added sugars.

Not all remedies for burns are as effective as they seem, though, and some may only be supported by folklore or old wives' tales. These include:31

Ice — Placing an ice pack over a burn may be tempting for instant relief, but this could do more harm than good. Using ice can not only lead to irritation, but in some extreme circumstances, it also may cause a burn to worsen.

Egg whites — There's no evidence that placing uncooked egg whites over your burn will help ease the pain. On the contrary, it may even cause bacterial infections.

Toothpaste — Despite its cooling effect, toothpaste may not help the burn heal. Rather, it may lead to the spread of bacteria.

Some essential oils — While some essential oils like lavender oil have been touted to help heal burns and wounds, not all of them are recommended because they can trap heat (more on this later).

Butter — Like essential oils, it traps heat, which keeps the burn from healing.

Diet for Burns

Consuming foods that contain skin health-boosting nutrients is crucial if you want to support your burn's healing. Vitamins C and A are good examples, and can be found in foods like grapefruits, oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, strawberries and carrots. Getting enough protein and healthy fats is also important for the healing process. Grass fed meats and chicken, wild caught fish like salmon, and pastured eggs and dairy are some great choices.32

Can You Turn to Essential Oils for Burns?

As mentioned, there are oils that may help disinfect burns and even help them to heal  faster. For example, French perfumer and chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefossé used lavender oil to heal a burn on his hand.33This was actually how the concept of aromatherapy came to be.

Nevertheless, be careful — oil can trap heat, preventing the heat from the burned area from coming out. This can worsen the damage. Make sure you check if you're using the right essential oil, diluted in the right ratios, and that no side effects occur. The best way to do this is to do a skin patch test first on a small area, and wait to see if any side effects, irritations or allergic reactions occur.

There Are Instances When Emergency Care Is Necessary

The home remedies mentioned above are ideal for small, superficial burns. However, for third-degree and fourth-degree burns, or those that cover a large area of your skin, immediate medical attention is crucial. If not attended to, these types of burns may lead to worse injuries and may affect other body functions.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Burns

Q: What helps heal burns faster?

A: Holding the burn under cool running water or using a cool compress over it may help relieve the pain quicker.

Q: What can be used to treat burns?

A: Raw honey and aloe vera are natural treatments that may help heal burns. Echinacea, St. John's wort, garlic or onion, plantain and green tea are other good options.

Q: Is toothpaste good for burns?

A: Using toothpaste on burns may cause bacteria to spread — opt for other remedies instead.

Q: How long does it take for a burn to go away?

A: According to a 2000 American Family Physician journal article, superficial burns take three to six days to heal, while superficial partial-thickness burns can heal in less than three weeks. Deep partial-thickness burns take more than three weeks. Full-thickness burns only heal at the edges by scarring and may require skin grafts.34

Q: Is it OK to put Vaseline (petroleum jelly) on a burn?

A: No. Petroleum jelly, like butter and essential oils, can trap heat inside the skin, potentially causing deeper damage.35

Q: Why is it bad to put ice on a burn?

A: Applying ice over a burn might do more harm than good. It can lead to irritation or even worsen the skin damage.

+ Sources and References