When can you treat a burn at home?
Whether you burn your hand on a pan of cookies, spend too much time in the sun, or spill hot coffee on your lap, burns are certainly not pleasant. Unfortunately, burns are one of the most common household injuries.
Burns are categorized by their severity. A first-degree burn is considered the least severe because it only affects the outer layer of skin. It usually only causes mild pain, redness, and swelling. Second-degree burns affect deeper layers of the skin and cause blisters and white, wet, and shiny skin. Third-degree burns involve damage to all layers of the skin, while fourth-degree burns may involve the joints and bones. Third- and fourth-degree burns are considered medical emergencies and should only be treated in a hospital.
You can treat most first-degree burns and second-degree burns less than three inches in diameter at home. Read on to learn which remedies are best for healing your skin, and also which remedies should be avoided.
The best home remedies for burns
Mild burns typically take around a week or two to completely heal and usually don’t cause scarring. The goal of burn treatment is to reduce pain, prevent infections, and heal the skin faster.
1. Cool water
The first thing you should do when you get a minor burn is run cool (not cold) water over the burn area for about 20 minutes. Then wash the burned area with mild soap and water.
2. Cool compresses
A cool compress or clean wet cloth placed over the burn area helps relieve pain and swelling. You can apply the compress in 5- to 15-minute intervals. Try not to use excessively cold compresses because they may irritate the burn more.
3. Antibiotic ointments
Antibiotic ointments and creams help prevent infections. Apply an antibacterial ointment like Bacitracin or Neosporin to your burn and cover with cling film or a sterile, non-fluffy dressing or cloth.
4. Aloe vera
Aloe vera is often touted as the “burn plant.” Studies show evidence that aloe vera is effective in healing first- to second-degree burns. Aloe is anti-inflammatory, promotes circulation, and inhibits the growth of bacteria.
Apply a layer of pure aloe vera gel taken from the leaf of an aloe vera plant directly to the affected area. If you buy aloe vera in a store, make sure it contains a high percentage of aloe vera and avoid products that have additives, especially coloring and perfumes.
Honey just got sweeter. Apart from its delicious taste, honey may help heal a minor burn when applied topically. Honey is an anti-inflammatory and naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal.
6. Reducing sun exposure
Do your best to avoid exposing the burn to direct sunlight. The burned skin will be very sensitive to the sun. Keep it covered with clothing.
7. Don’t pop your blisters
As tempting as it may be, leave your blisters alone. Bursting a blister yourself can lead to infection. If you’re worried about blisters that have formed due to your burn, see a medical professional.
8. Take an over-the-counter pain reliever
Remedies to stay away from
Bizarre home remedies and old wives’ tales for treating burns are widespread, but not everything your grandma tells you to do is good for you. The following common home burn remedies should be avoided:
Don’t use butter on a burn. There’s little to no evidence supporting the effectiveness of butter as a burn remedy. On top of that, it may actually make your burn worse. Butter retains heat and also may be harboring harmful bacteria that can infect the burned skin. Save your butter for your bread.
Contrary to popular belief, coconut oil does not heal everything. For the same reason why you shouldn’t apply butter to your burns, oils, such as coconut oil, olive oil, and cooking oils, hold heat in and can even cause the skin to continue to burn.
Lavender oil is reported to help heal burns, but there is little published evidence to support this claim. Studies conducted in rats, for example, have not shown any benefit of using lavender oil to heal a burn.
3. Egg whites
Another folk tale, uncooked egg whites carry a risk of bacterial infection and shouldn’t be placed on a burn. Eggs can also cause an allergic reaction.
Never apply toothpaste to a burn. This is another folk tale with no evidence to back it up. Toothpaste could irritate the burn and create a more favorable environment for infection. Toothpaste isn’t sterile.
Ice and very cold water can actually irritate your burn area more. Ice may even cause a cold burn if used improperly.
When to see a doctor
It’s important to recognize when a burn can be treated at home and when you need to seek medical care. You should seek help from a doctor if:
- a burn affects a widespread area more than three inches in diameter
- the burn includes the face, hands, buttocks, or groin area
- the wound becomes painful or smelly
- you develop a high temperature
- you think you have a third-degree burn
- if your last tetanus shot was more than 5 years ago
Third-degree burns should never be treated at home. They carry the risk of serious complications, including infections, blood loss, and shock. Often referred to as a “full-thickness burn,” a third-degree burn reaches underlying tissues and can even damage the nerves.
Symptoms of third-degree burn include:
- waxy, white-colored skin
- dark brown color
- raised and leathery texture
Burns caused by an electrical shock are also too risky for home treatment. These burns often reach layers under the skin and can even cause damage to internal tissues. The internal damage may be worse than you expect. Don’t take your chances. Call 911 right away.
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