Treating burns – the do’s and don’ts

Did you know that one in eight households have a cooking fire each year and, that more fires start in the kitchen than in any part of the home. Most of these fires are caused by unattended food on the stove.


Burns can be very painful and it is important to be able to distinguish between what is considered a minor burn and a major or serious burn. Fedhealth says it is a good idea for everyone in the household to know the fundamentals of what to do in the event of a burn accident and provides the following useful guidelines:


1st-degree burn: This means only the outer layer of skin is burned, but not all the way through. The skin is usually red and there is often swelling and pain sometimes is present. First degree burns are considered minor burns unless they involve substantial portions of the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint. If this is the case call for or get emergency medical attention.


2nd-degree burn: Here the first layer of skin has been burned through and the second layer of skin (dermis) also is burned. You will know this because blisters will develop and the skin will take on an intensely reddened, splotchy appearance. There will also be severe pain and swelling. Second-degree burns no larger than 7.6 centimetres in diameter are also classified as minor burns. However, if the burned area is larger or if the burn is on the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or over a major joint, treat it as a major burn and get medical help immediately.


3rd-degree burn: This is the most serious kind of burn and involves all layers of the skin and causes permanent tissue damage. Fat, muscle and even bone may be affected. Areas may be charred black or appear dry and white. Difficulty inhaling and exhaling, carbon monoxide poisoning, or other toxic effects may occur if smoke inhalation accompanies the burn. This is a serious burn, call for or get emergency medical help.


Treating minor burns:


  • Cool the burn. Hold the burnt area under cool (not cold) running water for 10 or 15 minutes or until the pain subsides.  If you do not have running water you can submerge the burnt area in cool water or cool it with cold compresses. Cooling the burn reduces swelling by conducting heat away from the skin. Do not put ice on the burn.
  • Cover the burn with a sterile gauze bandage. Wrap the gauze loosely to avoid putting pressure on burned skin. Bandaging keeps air off the burn, reduces pain and protects blistered skin. Avoid using fluffy cotton or other material – you do not want lint in the wound.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever. These include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others), naproxen (Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others).


Fedhealth caution the use of aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. It is better to talk  to your doctor if you have concerns.


Minor burns usually heal without further treatment. There may be some discolouration on the burnt area, however, if the pain increases or redness, fever, swelling or oozing occur this means it has become infected and you should seek medical help.


Avoid re-injuring or tanning if the burns are less than a year old as this can cause more extensive discolouring or pigmentation changes. Use sunscreen on the area for at least a year.


Knowing what not to do with a burn is almost as important as knowing what to do. Different levels of burns often need to be treated differently. For instance, submerging a minor burn under cool water is good, however, doing this to a severe burn could cause a drop in body temperature (hypothermia) and deterioration of blood pressure and circulation (shock).


  • Do not use ice. Putting ice directly on a burn can cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound.
  • Do not apply egg whites, butter or ointments to the burn. This could cause infection.
  • Do not break blisters. Broken blisters are more vulnerable to infection.
  • Do not remove burnt clothing. However, make sure the burn victim is no longer in contact with smouldering materials or exposed to smoke or heat.