Hesperian Health Guides

Caring for Burns

a woman spilling a pot of hot liquid while removing it from a cooking fire
Burns are a common injury for women and children. All burns should first be cooled for 15 minutes with ice, cold water, or cloths soaked in cold water. After cooling, treatment depends on how serious the burn is. It is very important to keep burns as clean as possible. Protect them from dirt, dust, flies, and other insects. For better healing, never put grease, fat, animal skins, coffee, herbs, or stool on a burn. It is important for persons who have been burned to eat body-building foods (protein). There is no type of food that needs to be avoided.

There are 3 basic kinds of burns:

  1. Minor burns (1st degree)
    These burns do not form blisters, but the skin will get darker or red. After cooling, no other treatment is needed. Use aspirin or paracetamol for pain.
  2. IMPORTANT! Wash your hands carefully before caring for burns to prevent infection.
  3. Burns that cause blisters (2nd degree)
    After cooling, do not break the blisters. Do not make a hole in the blister or take out the liquid inside—not even with a needle and syringe that has been disinfected. If the blister does break, use scissors that have been disinfected to gently remove all the dead skin. Then use mild soap and boiled, cooled water on sterile cotton or gauze, or disinfected cloth, to gently clean the burn. You can also use hydrogen peroxide. Remove any remaining burned skin on and around the burn until you see the fresh pink skin underneath. Cover this fresh skin with a piece of sterile gauze or disinfected cloth. If the cloth sticks to the burn when you want to remove it, wet it with water that has been boiled and cooled.
    To prevent infection in the burn area, apply a sterile gauze or disinfected cloth that has been soaked in a salt water solution for 15 minutes, 3 times a day. Each time you change the cloth, remove the dead skin and flesh carefully with very clean tweezers, until you see fresh pink skin.
  4. To make a salt solution:

    a cloth being placed on a woman's chest as she lies on her back
    Use 1 teaspoon of salt for 1 liter or quart of water. Boil both the cloth and water before use and cool before putting on the burn.

    If the burn does become infected, it will be even more painful, more swollen, and the skin spreading out away from the burn will become hard and red. Use an antibiotic, such as 250 mg of dicloxacillin or 250 mg of cephalexin 4 times a day for 7 to 10 days. Give the person plenty of liquids.

  5. Deep Burns (3rd Degree)
    These are burns that destroy the skin and expose blackened and charred flesh. These burns are always serious. Take the person for medical help at once. In the meantime, wrap the burned part with a disinfected damp cloth or towel. Make sure the water used to dampen the cloth has been boiled and cooled. Give the person plenty of fluids.

    If it is impossible to get medical help, treat the burn as you would a 2nd degree burn. To protect the burn from dust and insects, cover it with a loose, sterile cotton cloth or sheet. Change the cloth at least 4 times a day, or 2 times a day if the cloth stays dry.

    Give ‘rehydration drink’ as often as possible, until the person passes urine frequently. If the person is unconscious or cannot swallow, give the rehydration drink in the rectum (see How to give rectal fluids).

    Any person who has been badly burned can easily go into shock, caused by the loss of body fluids from the oozing burn.

    Comfort and reassure the burned person, and treat her or him for shock if necessary. Give codeine or any strong pain medicine you have. Bathing open wounds in slightly salty cold water also helps ease pain.

This page was updated:23 Oct 2019