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Categories > Skin and Scalp Care > Treating skin problems

Treating burns

You’ve just burned yourself cooking. Now what should you do? That depends whether your burn is a first-, second- or third-degree burn, and whether it’s minor or major.

  • First-degree burns are superficial, affecting only the skin’s outer layer. These burns are painful and red, and there’s swelling at the burn site.
  • Second-degree burns harm the skin’s outer and underlying layers. There’ll be pain, redness, swelling and blistering.
  • Third-degree burns are the most serious, affecting the skin’s deep tissues and its outer layers. The skin at the burn site looks charred and blackened or white, and the area may feel numb.

A major burn is a first- or second-degree burn that covers an area greater than 2 or 3 inches in diameter; a burn on the face, hands, feet, groin, buttocks or a major joint; or a third-degree burn of any size. A minor burn is a first- or second-degree burn that covers a small area of the skin in a less sensitive area.

For minor burns:

  • Run cool water over your burn for at least five minutes if it’s a first-degree burn or 15 minutes for a second-degree burn.
  • Never use ice or ice water.
  • Cover the burn with a dry, sterile bandage. Avoid putting pressure on the area.
  • Take an over-the-counter painkiller like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Apply a moisturizing lotion, like aloe vera, or an antibiotic ointment to the affected area.
  • For burns that blister: Place cool, wet cloths on the burn site daily, then apply antibiotic cream and loosely cover the area with a sterile dressing. Never pop blisters that form.
  • Check with your doctor to make sure that your tetanus shot is up-to-date.
  • Examine the burn daily to check for signs of infection, which include pus, additional redness or increased pain.

For major burns:

  • Head to the hospital or call 911.
  • Don’t soak the burn in water or apply ointment. Never apply butter or oil to any burns, whether major or minor.
  • Raise the burned area above the heart if possible.
  • Don’t remove any clothing that is stuck to burned skin.
  • If you prefer, cover the burn with a cool, wet sterile bandage or clean cloth until you receive medical attention.