Hesperian Health Guides
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For a minor burn, immediately pour cool water over the burned skin for 15 to 30 minutes. This will cool and clean the skin and help reduce the pain.
Keep the area clean with mild soap and water as it heals. Honey or aloe vera juice speed healing of smaller burns, but should be put on only after the burn has cooled.
Minor burns should heal in about 1 to 3 weeks.
Dangerous burns include:
- Deep burns (called deep partial thickness, or full thickness burns). They do not hurt unless pressed on because the nerves have been destroyed. They do not change color if pressed on. They may look mottled in color, or if deeper, they may be waxy white, leathery gray, or charred black.
- Large burns. A large burn is one that covers 10% or more of the body. Even if not deep, a burn this large is dangerous. You can estimate how much of the body is burned based on the size of the palm of the hand of the burned person. Does the burn cover about the size of one palm? That is about 1% of their body surface. 10 palms is about 10%.
- A burn that covers a joint, the face, or the genitals. These can scar badly and disable the person, especially a child.
- Burns combined with other injuries.
- Burns in children. Children have much more difficulty recovering from burns and whenever possible should be cared for in hospitals equipped to treat burns.
Get help for dangerous burns. On the way to the medical center, give small sips of water frequently if the person is alert. Cover the area of the burn with a very clean cloth. For dangerous burns, avoid immersing the burn in cold water—it can make the body temperature drop too low and the person can become dangerously cold. Try to calm the person.
- A person with a large or deep burn can easily become dehydrated because body fluids are lost as they ooze from the burn. Give extra fluids. It is usually considered best to give intravenous (IV) fluids, but large quantities of rehydration drink will work for someone who is alert and able to drink. Dehydration can also lead to shock, so watch for the signs listed. See Caring for Sick People (in development) for information on IV fluids.
- Burns and the area around them are very prone to infection. Keep the burn clean and wash it each day with running water or by briefly soaking it in clean water. A little mild soap is helpful but do not use disinfectants or iodine—they will delay healing. Gently wipe or scrape away small amounts of
- Cover the burn with antibiotic ointment and then with very clean fine mesh gauze or another very clean dressing. Wrap firmly to create pressure without cutting off circulation. Change the bandage each day and every time it gets dirty. A dirty bandage can cause infection. You may need to soak off a bandage that has stuck in place. Be sure to individually wrap and separate burned fingers and toes.
- Give antibiotics if any of these signs of infection appear: the skin smells bad, has pus, becomes more red or hot, or the person gets a fever. See information on antibiotics. Make sure tetanus vaccinations are up to date. See Vaccines (in development).
- If a blister has opened, keep the area clean. If the blister has not opened, do not try to pop it. Opened blisters are more likely to get infected.
- Burns are extremely painful. Do not hesitate to give strong pain medicine including morphine or other opiates. Always give pain medicine before cleaning or changing a dressing on a serious burn. As burns heal they can start to itch. An antihistamine provides some relief.
- Plenty of nutritious food including extra protein is needed to help a burn heal. Even though you may not feel hungry, eat 4 or more high-energy meals a day plus snacks while healing. The high-energy foods described in "Good Food Makes Good Health" are especially nutritious.
- Burned parts may become stiff and immobile as they heal, especially if the burn is on a joint. These parts must be moved every few hours. If the person cannot move a joint herself, gently help her.
As with any serious injury, get help if the person gets worse or you cannot provide needed care.