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Burn Center

Burn Severity and Treatment

Burns are primarily divided into 3 categories: first-degree or "superficial" burns; second-degree or "partial thickness" burns; and third-degree or "full thickness" burns. How these types of burns are treated initially will determine whether there is a successful outcome.

Degrees of Burn and When to Seek Help

First-Degree Burn

Signs:

  • Skin is usually still intact
  • May appear to be red, very warm or hot to touch
  • Painful
  • Small blisters and swelling in and around the area

Occurrence:

  • Involves outer most layer of skin
  • Usually associated with sunburn
  • May occur from too much sun exposure

When to Seek Help:

  • If there is a persistent fever not relieved by medication
  • Redness that may extend beyond the border of the burn
  • Pain is not controlled by ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Do not delay seeking medical attention if burn is larger than size of palm

Second-Degree Burn

Signs:

  • Very red
  • Blister formation
  • Extremely painful
  • Fair amount of swelling

Occurrence:

  • When second layer of skin is burned

When to Seek Help:

  • If burn is smaller than 2-3 inches (7 centimeters) — It may be treated as a minor burn
  • If burn is larger or involves the feet, face, eye, ears, groin or major joints — Go to nearest ER, family doctor or urgent care for further evaluation to avoid permanent disfigurement or loss of function

Third-Degree Burn

Signs:

  • Charred
  • Blackened
  • White
  • Dry or leathery skin texture

Occurrence:

  • Involves all layers of skin
  • Can cause permanent tissue damage

When to Seek Help:

  • Third degree burns are NOT minor burns
  • These are serious burns, no matter the size or area of body
  • Seek medical attention immediately

First-Degree Burns: Initial First-Aid Treatment

Initial first-aid treatment for a first-degree burn include the following:

What to Do
  • Stop the burning process — Cool the burn with running cool (not cold) water for at least 5 minutes. Do not over cool! If the victim starts to shiver, stop the cooling process.

  • Remove all jewelry, watches, rings and clothing around the burned area as soon as possible.

  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain control. Follow the directions on the label. Consult a physician or healthcare provider if pain is not relieved.

  • Cover the burn with a sterile gauge bandage or clean cloth. Wrap the burned area loosely to avoid putting too much pressure on the burn tissue.

  • Minor burns will usually heal without further treatment.

  • For small area burns — Apply soothing lotions that contains aloe vera to the burned area to help relieve the pain and discomfort.

  • Drink plenty of fluids (electrolyte-containing solutions such as Gatorade) if the person appears to be dehydrated.

What to Avoid
  • DO NOT use ice — This may cause further skin damage.

  • Do NOT use any butter, ointments or other home remedies on the burn — Such substances may trap the heat in the tissue and makes the burn worse.

  • DO NOT break any blisters — Leave intact.

Healing Process

It may take several days for a mild first-degree or second-degree burn to heal. During that time, it's important that the affected area is observed for infection, such as:

  • Redness extending beyond the burned area
  • Changes in the appearance of the wound
  • Slight fever not relieved by Tylenol®

As your skin begins to heal, you may also notice that it will itch, which can be very uncomfortable at times. This is normal and will eventually decrease. Frequent application of lotion can help keep the skin hydrated and minimize the itching process. If the itching is too severe, an over-the-counter medication such as Benadryl® may be helpful in easing the discomfort.

The wound should be kept clean with daily dressing changes. If you have any concern or questions, consult your healthcare provider. Once the burn has healed, limit the exposure of the burned skin to direct sunlight. Always wear sun protection.

Following these guidelines should promote healing to most minor burns.

Most burns require immediate medical attention. If you have experienced a burn that requires urgent medical attention, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Appointments for Non-Urgent Burns

If you have a non-urgent burn and would like a second opinion, schedule an appointment or call 800-TEMPLE-MED (800-836-7536) today.

Learn more about our doctors and care team who treat burns.


This information is from the American Burn Association.

It is important to note that the consumer should always seek the advice of a healthcare provider if there is any question regarding the healing process of a minor burn. The American Burn Association and the Burn Prevention Committee are not responsible or liable for any untoward complications suffered by any individual following these suggested guidelines. This material is for information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, which you should seek from your physician. The ABA does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.