How to Care for First-Degree and Second-Degree Burns

Burns are common injuries that can happen suddenly, and treatment varies greatly depending on the severity of the burn. How do you know whether to treat your first- or second-degree burn at home or go to urgent care or the emergency room?

What Are the Types of Burns?

Burns occur when the skin or other tissue is damaged as a result of heat, electricity, sunlight, chemicals or radiation. Hot steam or hot liquid spills, building fires, and flammable liquids and gases are the most common causes of burns. Minor burns often happen during activities, such as cooking or using a curling iron.

What should you do if you or a family member gets a burn? It depends on what type it is. Burns are generally classified into three categories:

  • First-degree burns are superficial, affecting the outer layer of skin. The skin can become red and painful, and you may have mild swelling.
  • Second-degree burns go deeper, damaging the outer layer of skin as well as the layer beneath it. Along with pain, redness and swelling, blistering is a sign of this type of burn.
  • Third-degree burns are some of the most severe, injuring or destroying both layers of skin including hair follicles and sweat glands and damaging the tissues underneath. The skin looks white or black and may also be numb.

How Should Burns Be Treated?

Minor burns don’t usually require medical attention, but they should be cared for right away to avoid scarring. If you have a first-degree burn anywhere on your body or a second-degree burn less than 3 inches wide, follow these steps to treat it at home:

  • Keep the burned area under cool running water or soak it in a cool bath for five to 30 minutes. Be sure the water is not icy cold.
  • Cover the burn with a dry, sterile bandage.
  • For relief from pain and swelling, take ibuprofen or acetaminophen according to package directions.
  • After the skin has cooled, you can also apply lotion with aloe and antibiotic ointment.

However, if the burn begins to show signs of infection or it is still painful after 48 hours, go to urgent care or call your healthcare provider. Symptoms of infection include:

  • Fever
  • Increasing pain
  • Pus or drainage
  • Red streaks coming from the burn
  • Swollen lymph nodes

If the burn is severe, don’t wait to get emergency care. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if:

  • The burn is bigger than the size of your palm.
  • There are signs of a third-degree burn.
  • The burn was caused by electricity or chemicals.

If you’re not sure how serious the burn is, go to urgent care or the emergency room.

For convenient walk-in care, visit River’s Edge Urgent Care Clinic, located at the main entrance to the hospital.

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