From the sun’s rays to kitchen fires and scalding, it can be all too easy to burn the skin. In fact, more than 450,000 Americans are treated at the hospital each year for burns. Whether you’re dealing with a mild sunburn or a more serious injury, this guide will help you learn how to tell the difference between the three major categories of burns and how to treat each type effectively.
First-degree burns are superficial, and they only affect the skin’s outermost layer (the epidermis). Briefly touching a hot plate may cause a first-degree burn, and a mild sunburn is also in this category. Typically, these burns result in minor redness and pain, and the affected area may become slightly swollen. First-degree burns often heal within about three to six days, and treating the burn at home is generally all that is needed. To treat a first-degree burn, immediately soak the area in cool water for at least five minutes. Do not use ice or butter, and do not touch the area with cotton balls; all of these could make the damage worse. Next, apply lidocaine cream or aloe vera gel to the wound for pain relief. This can be followed by an application of over-the-counter antibiotic cream. Finally, cover the area with a loosely wrapped layer of sterile gauze. Although first-degree burns almost always heal without scarring, patients should see a doctor for any burns on the face and for burns that are larger than three inches.
Also known as partial-thickness burns, second-degree burns affect deeper layers of skin than first-degree burns, and they cause the skin to blister. Partial-thickness burns can be caused by chemicals, electricity, scalding from hot water or radiation. The wound may be very red and swollen, and it is often shiny and wet in appearance. Discoloration may occur on the wound, and second-degree burns are typically painful to the touch.
When treating a second-degree burn, never break the blisters that form on the skin; only a doctor should do this. Most partial thickness burns heal within two to three weeks, and they can usually be treated at home. Burns of this type should be immediately soaked in cool water for at least fifteen minutes, and antibiotic cream should be applied over any blisters. The area should then be wrapped loosely with gauze. Patients can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief, and they should change the gauze at least once every two or three days. Although home treatment is normally appropriate for mild second-degree burns, emergency medical care should be sought if the burn is located on the face, hands, feet, buttocks or groin area.
Third-degree burns extend through all the layers of the skin, causing widespread damage. Also known as full-thickness burns, they can be caused by contact with scalding liquid, flames from a fire or prolonged contact with a hot object. Third-degree burns may appear dark brown or waxy and white, and they are often elevated above the skin. Many third-degree burns have a leathery texture, and char may be present. Sometimes, individuals who have third-degree burns do not experience pain. This is due to nerve damage caused by the burn. This kind of burn can have severe consequences for the victim, including taking extended time off work and months of physical and/or occupational therapy.
Unlike other types of burns, third-degree burns always require emergency treatment, and surgery is necessary to minimize scarring and contracture of the skin. While waiting for emergency care, patients with third-degree burns should try to elevate the wound above the heart. It is important that there is no clothing stuck to the burn. The recovery time for third-degree burns varies according to the individual patient, and the healing process may take months or years.
As with any medical issue, be sure to contact a health care provider or seek urgent care if you have any signs of infection, increasing pain, or new symptoms. Treating burns early helps to increase the chances of a positive outcome.
For more safety tips, check out this article: 3 Things Parents Need to Know About Head Injuries