8 Dos and Don’ts Of Treating a Burn
As anyone who is constantly overestimating their ability to handle bowls straight from the microwave can bashfully attest, most of the burns you encounter every day are so minor they barely break the skin. Unfortunately, some burns can be much more serious: Based on data from 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that over a million Americans require medical treatment for burns every year. Just in case you or someone you know ends up part of that statistic, here are eight dos and don’ts for treating burns, so should the worst happen you’ll be prepared and empowered to help out as best you can.
1. Do learn the degrees. A first-degree burn involves just the top layer of skin and usually doesn’t require professional medical treatment. The skin will look red and slightly swollen. Second-degree burns are more painful, breaking through two layers of skin and causing blisters that may leak, as well as deep reddening and possibly scarring. They may require a trip to the ER. Third-degree burns get through every layer to permanently destroy the tissue. “Third-degree burns are very white, yellow, charred, or black, and very dry,” explains Stephanie Campbell, a registered critical care nurse and Burn Program Manager at the Parkland Regional Burn Center at Parkland Health & Hospital System. “These burns will not heal without professional treatment and skin grafting. Any size third-degree burn should be treated by a burn center.” If a burn is deep but not painful, that’s a sign it’s a third-degree burn: “There is likely nerve and blood vessel damage,” cautions Dr. Caesar Djavaherian, MD, an emergency doctor at Carbon Health. “Those always require medical evaluation to reduce severe scarring.”
2. Do determine the source. The first thing to do when a burn happens is to figure out the source and stop it or escape. The four main varieties of burn are heat, electricity, chemical, and radiation (that last one includes sunburn and X-ray burns). If it’s heat (from a fire or from scalding water, for example), extinguish it if you know how and are able to do so, or get away. If it’s electricity, make sure the source is switched off and there are no live wires still around, or leave. If it’s from a chemical like a solvent, a strong acid or alkali, or a detergent, make sure it’s now contained (without touching it directly) or move away. If you can get to the container without touching the chemical itself, take it with you when you seek medical help so they can identify exactly what caused the burn.
3. Do remove clothing and jewelry (if you can.) There are two good reasons for this. First, your priority after removing the source is cooling the skin down, and clothes and jewelry often retain heat, explains Dr. Djavaherian. Secondly, burns swell very quickly, so it’s important to remove clothing and jewelry that might suddenly become restrictive, especially from around the neck, where they might block the airway. However, if the clothing or jewelry is stuck, cut around it carefully if you can, or leave the whole item on and get medical help.
4. Do run the burn under cold water. “The best initial treatment for most burns will be cool running water,” advises Campbell. “You should cool the burn as soon as possible after the injury occurs to hopefully stop the burning process and lessen the amount of tissue damage. Run the cool water over the burn for at least five minutes, or until the sting lessens. For burns over a large area of your body or in places that you can’t easily run cool water over, you should seek medical attention immediately.” Chemical burns, in particular, “need lots of irrigation with water,” Campbell says. “If the chemical is powdery, you should brush the powder off completely before running water over the area. Chemical burns require professional medical attention.”
5. Don’t use ice. “Never put ice on a burn injury!” cautions Campbell. “The ice can freeze the tissue and actually worsen the burn.”
6. Don’t turn to home remedies. Butter belongs on burnt toast, not burnt skin. Sure, your nana always swore her secret blend of herbs would help you heal faster, but turning to your kitchen cupboards for a burn treatment could be a recipe for disaster. “It’s never a good idea to put something from your pantry or refrigerator on a burn!” Campbell warns. “Food items can put even small burns at greater risk for infection, and things like butter actually trap in heat instead of having a cooling effect like we want. Toothpaste and other household products can contain ingredients that may be abrasive or irritating to burn injuries.” Start with cold water, she says: “If the burn is smaller than three inches in diameter, and after you cool it the skin is open and pink or blistered, you can use an antibiotic ointment and loose dressing until it heals.”
7. Do seek medical treatment. “If you think someone’s life is in danger due to a large or deep burn injury, please call 911 immediately!” Campbell says. As we’ve mentioned, you should also seek medical help for chemical burns and any burn where removing an item of clothing or jewelry could rip the skin. Campbell adds that you should also get medical help if a burn is over three inches in diameter; was caused by electricity; and/or is over a joint or “your face, ears, eyes, hands, feet, or groin.” She also recommends getting medical help whenever you aren’t sure how to treat a burn: “It’s a good idea to seek medical treatment for a burn injury any time you have a question about how to care for the burn or if the burn is causing you a lot of pain.”
8. Don’t neglect sunburn. Yes, sunburn really is a type of burn. In fact, according to Dr. Djavaherian, it’s not only the most common, but compared to other relatively minor burns, “it has the most detrimental effect on your overall health long term, since it can lead to cancers.” Typically sunburn is either a first- or second-degree burn, Campbell says: “If the sunburn is red but the skin is intact, it’s a first-degree burn. If the sunburn has blisters or the skin opens up, it is a second-degree burn.” Just like any other burn, you need to remove the source, which means no more lying out in the sun for you. It should heal within a few days, Dr. Djavaherian reassures us, and you can use aloe vera to help cool it down.
(Photos via Getty)