Have you ever accidentally burned yourself while cooking or starting a fire? You’re not alone. Burns are one the most common household injuries.

Almost half a million people in the United States go to the emergency room yearly with burn injuries. Burns can be caused by:

A thermal burn is most common when your skin comes into contact with a hot object, such as boiling water, a hot surface on your stovetop, or steam from your iron.

Thermal burns by scalding liquids or flames are especially common for toddlers and children. Almost a quarter of all burn injuries in the United States occur in children younger than 15 years.

What should you do if you or a loved one has a thermal burn? When should you go to the emergency room? How do you avoid burns? Let’s answer these and other questions you may have about thermal burns.

Thermal burns are the primary cause of all burn injuries in the United States. Dry and wet sources of heat can cause them. Burns from wet sources are called scalds.

Dry sources of heat are:

  • fire flames
  • hot metal, glass, or other objects

Scalds can be caused by:

You can burn your airways if you breathe smoke, steam, or superheated air.

Thermal burn symptoms depend on the location and the severity or degree of the burn. They are usually worse during the first few hours or days after the burn.

Symptoms of burns include:

Symptoms of airway burns are:

  • burns on your head, face, neck, eyebrows, or nose hairs
  • burned lips and mouth
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath or wheezing
  • dark, black-stained mucus
  • voice changes
Medical emergency

If you have any of the following symptoms after a thermal burn, call emergency medical services or go to the nearest emergency room:

  • symptoms of an airway burn
  • burn on your face
  • burn in a baby or an older person
  • little or no pain in the burn area
  • burn larger than three inches
  • pus oozing from the burn
  • pain getting worse with time
  • change in the thickness of the burn
  • bad smell coming from the burn
  • fever
  • shock (pale and clammy skin, weakness, blue skin or fingernails, confusion)

Doctors usually categorize burns based on how deeply your skin has been injured. These are called “degrees of burn.” You can have from a first- to a third-degree burn.

First-degree thermal burns

First-degree burns are also called “superficial burns” because they affect the top layer of your skin. They cause redness and swelling. Usually, these types of burns don’t require medical attention.

Second-degree thermal burns

Second-degree burns are more serious than first-degree burns. They are also called “partial-thickness burns.” They affect the top layer of your skin and the next layer below it.

This type of burn often causes your skin to blister. Over time, blisters can pop open, giving your skin a wet or moist appearance. Some second-degree burns can leave scars.

These burns are more painful and take longer to heal, but they typically don’t require medical attention.

Third-degree thermal burns

These burns affect all three layers of your skin. Because of that, they are also called “full-thickness burns.” Third-degree burns can make your skin look white or charred, dry, and leathery. These types of burns may cause little to no pain. This happens when there is extensive nerve damage.

Without skin graft surgery, these burns can cause severe scarring. Skin grafting takes healthy skin from another area of your body and moves it to the site of the burn injury.

First, assess the severity if you or your loved one has a burn. If the burn is severe, seek immediate medical attention.

If the burn is minor:

  • Cool the burn with cool (not cold) running water for 10 minutes.
  • Remove clothing or jewelry from the affected area.
  • Don’t apply lotions and oils or break blisters — this can cause an infection.
  • It’s OK to use petroleum jelly or aloe vera, but make sure the burn area is clean.
  • Loosely bandage the burn.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

If you treat your burn at home, continue to change bandages once a day until the burn heals. Also, look for signs of infection in the burn area, such as:

  • pus oozing from the burn
  • pain getting worse with time
  • change in the thickness of the burn
  • bad smell coming from the burn
  • fever

If you notice any of these symptoms, seek immediate medical help.

First- and second-degree burns usually don’t require medical attention. But you should seek immediate medical help if your burn is:

  • larger than three inches
  • on your face, hands, or feet
  • on your buttocks or groin
  • on a joint (knee, shoulder, elbow, spine, ankle)
  • all the way around your limb or digit (finger or toe)
  • accompanied by other symptoms
Medical emergency

Never attempt to treat third-degree burns at home.

Call emergency medical services immediately. While you’re waiting for help, raise the burned area above your heart. Don’t get undressed, but make sure no clothing is stuck to the injury.

More than 73 percent of burn injuries happen at home. Follow these tips to protect yourself and your children from these dangerous accidents:

  • Don’t leave your kitchen unattended while cooking.
  • Use the back burners of your stove and keep handles turned away from the edge.
  • Always have pads readily available when cooking.
  • Ensure all burners and electric appliances are off when you’re done using them.
  • Never put hot drinks on low tables and on the edges of countertops where kids can easily reach them.
  • Set your water heater to 120° F (49° C)
  • Never leave children alone while they are bathing.

Thermal burns caused by contact with a hot object are among the most common household injuries.

There can be first-, second-, or third-degree thermal burns. First-degree burns show as redness and swelling. Second-degree burns usually cause blisters. Third-degree burns may have white or charred skin.

While first- and second-degree burns don’t usually require medical attention, you should treat third-degree burns in the emergency room.

Most burn injuries happen at home. Make sure to practice safe cooking and supervise your children around hot objects.