Hesperian Health Guides

Burns

Minor burns

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.

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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

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 affects 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.

Treatment
  • Salbutamol can help a person breathe more easily if they inhaled a lot of smoke.
  • 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 best to give intravenous (IV) fluids, but large quantities of rehydration drink will work for someone who is alert and able to drink. Watch for danger signs of shock, that can come from dehydration.
  • 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
    dead tissue.
  • 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: increasing redness, heat, pain, swelling, bad smell or pus, or the person gets a fever. See more about medicines for burns. Make sure tetanus vaccinations are up-to-date.
  • 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. While healing, try to eat at least 4 meals each day that have protein (such as chicken, other meats, eggs, milk, fish, beans, and nuts), as well as snacks.
  • 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.


This page was updated:05 Feb 2020