Written by April Khan and Matthew Solan | Published on July 18, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD


A burn is damage to the skin or body tissue from exposure to heat, ultra-violet light, radiation, hot liquid, steam, fire, flammable liquids or gases, chemicals, or electricity. Minor burns typically heal on their own without treatment, while more severe burns require hospitalization to prevent infection, shock, or death.

What are the Types of Burn?

Burns are graded by degrees: first, second, and third.

  • First-degree burns are the most common burns, and only affect the outer layer of skin. Second-degree cause damage to the first two layers of skin.
  • Third-degree burns damage the deepest layer of skin and tissue.

What are the Symptoms of a Burn?

Evidence of a burn is usually visible and include these signs:

  • pain, increasing with each degree of burn
  • moist-looking skin
  • red and swollen skin
  • blisters
  • dry and white, leathery or tanned skin
  • charred and blackened skin

How are Burns Treated?

Treatments are based on the severity of the burn. First and some second-degree burns (no larger than three inches of skin involved) can be treated by running cool water over the area for 10 to 15 minutes. If running water over the area is not an option, use a cool compress on the burn. Do not apply ice to a burn as it can further damage the skin.

Gently dry the burned area and use a burn ointment to promote healing and help prevent scarring. Then cover the area with a gauze pad and bandage. Avoid using loose cotton balls, since the cotton fibers can stick to the burned skin. If the burn affects a large joint (knee or elbow) or a large area of your hands, feet, face, buttocks or groin, you should seek emergency care.

You may have heard that putting butter, oil, or egg whites on a burn is helpful. This is not recommended. Using these types of products may actually cause more damage to the skin and increase your risk of infection. If blisters form, do not puncture them as this also increases your chance of infection.

A third-degree burn may go beyond the first three layers of skin and involve other tissues and bone. If you have a third-degree burn, do not attempt to treat it yourself. Call 911 immediately. Do not remove any of your clothing, but at the same time make sure your clothes are no longer in contact with the source of the burn. Cover the burned area with a cool, moist cloth and raise the burned area above the heart.

In all cases, pain can be managed with medication.

What are the Potential Complications from a Burn?

Extensive burns may limit your ability to move about normally and leave permanent scars at the burn site. But complications can arise from even minor burns. Infection is always a threat with burns. Bacteria can enter the body through the damaged, broken skin. An infection left unchecked can risk a full infection of the bloodstream called sepsis. Sepsis can lead to shock and even death.

Any burn that is severe enough to cause substantial blood loss impairs the heart’s ability to pump enough blood throughout the body. This can cause hypovolemia (low blood volume) and lead to shock. Hypothermia is a risk if the burns expose a large area of skin that allows too much heat to escape the body.

Keloid scars result when an excessive amount of scar tissue forms over a wound such as an open cut or burn. Keloids are shiny and raised above the skin’s surface. They are usually flesh-colored, but they may be darker or lighter than your skin color. They pose no danger, but must be protected from sun exposure to prevent them from darkening over time.

It is a good idea to keep your tetanus shots up to date as burns leave you susceptible to tetanus. If you have not had a tetanus shot in more than five years, you may want to get a booster shot to be safe.

What Can You Do To Prevent Burns?

Many burns occur at home, so you can prevent them by implementing some simple preventative measures.

Keep smoke detectors in good working order with regular checks and by changing the batteries often. Keep a fire extinguisher in or near your kitchen to any fires before they spread. Keep matches and lighters out of your children’s reach. Avoid dryer fires by checking and cleaning the lint trap of your clothes dryer regularly. And create a fire escape plan and go over it with your family so you can be prepared if a fire should start.

If you smoke, take care to stub out cigarettes and cigars completely. Do not smoke when you’re tired and never smoke while lying down.

When using any type of chemicals, always wear gloves and protective clothing to guard against chemical burns.

Other precautions you can take around your home:

  • do not plug in electronics with any exposed wiring and do not overload plug sockets.
  • check the temperature of your bath water before getting into the tub.
  • read and follow storing instructions for flammable substances.
  • turn the handles of pots and pans on the stove toward the wall.

Healing and Long-Term Outlook for Burns

Most minor burns have a good chance of healing without infection and little scaring. However, second or third-degree burns that cover a large area of the body may require multiple surgeries and some rehabilitation. Some serious burns cause bone, internal tissue, or even organ damage, may require lifelong care.

If you have ongoing pain from your burn, do not hesitate to consult with your doctor about pain management. Also, seek the assistance of a professional counselor or support group to manage any emotional issues you may be dealing with as a result of your burns.

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