Burns First Aid: Comprehensive Guide to Immediate Response and Effective Care

Burns are injuries to the skin and underlying tissues caused by various factors such as heat, chemicals, electricity, or radiation. They range from minor discomfort to life-threatening emergencies, making it crucial to know the different types, degrees, causes, and prevention strategies associated with burns.

Burns are categorized based on the source of injury. The main types include thermal, chemical, electrical, and radiation burns.

  • Thermal Burns: These are caused by heat sources such as flames, hot liquids, steam, or hot surfaces.
  • Chemical Burns: Due to exposure to corrosive substances like acids, alkalis, or solvents, chemical burns are severe and require immediate medical attention.
  • Electrical Burns: Caused by electric current passing through the body, electrical burns leads to internal damage and complications.
  • Radiation Burns: Radiation burns result from prolonged exposure to sources like X-rays or radioactive materials and damage the skin and surrounding tissues.

Thermal Burns

Thermal burns are among the most common types of burns. Thermal burns occurs when the skin and tissues are exposed to high temperatures, such as flames, hot objects, steam, or hot liquids. These burns range from minor burns to severe, causing immediate pain and damage to the skin. 

Thermal burns results from various everyday scenarios, including cooking accidents, scalding from hot beverages, contact with open flames, or touching hot surfaces. These burns occur when the skin's proteins and cells are damaged due to the intense heat, leading to pain, redness, and, in severe cases, blistering and charring of the skin.


First Aid Treatment for Thermal Burns

Immediate and proper first aid is crucial in managing thermal burns effectively. Here are the essential steps to take when providing first aid for thermal burns:

  1. Cool the Burn: Immediately cool the burn with running water for effective first aid for at least 10-20 minutes. Avoid using ice or very cold water, as extreme cold further damage the skin.
  2. Remove Tight Clothing: As a first aid measure, carefully remove any tight clothing or jewelry near the burn. If the burn is on an arm or leg, gently remove tight clothing, jewelry, or accessories from the affected area to prevent constriction due to swelling.
  3. Cover with a Clean Cloth: After cooling the burn, cover it with a sterile, non-stick dressing or a clean cloth to prevent infection. Avoid adhesive bandages, as they stick to the burn and cause more pain.
  4. Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen helps manage pain and reduce inflammation.
  5. Seek Medical Attention: For severe burns, burns on the face, hands, feet, genitals, or major joints, or burns caused by chemicals or electricity, seek immediate medical attention. Do not attempt to treat these burns at home.


Chemical Burns

Chemical burns occur when the skin or eyes contact harmful substances, such as acids, alkalis, solvents, or detergents. These burns causes damage to the skin and underlying tissues, leading to severe pain, blistering, and in some cases, long-term complications. 

Chemical burns results from various sources, including exposure to industrial chemicals, household cleaning products, laboratory substances, or even common items like bleach. Accidental spills, improper handling of chemicals, or lack of personal protective equipment leads to these burns. Chemical burns are caused by both strong acids (low pH) and strong alkalis (high pH), with alkali burns often considered more severe due to their ability to penetrate tissues deeply.


First Aid Treatment for Chemical Burns

Immediate action is essential when dealing with chemical burns to minimize tissue damage and reduce the risk of complications. Here are the crucial steps to take when providing first aid for chemical burns:

  1. Remove the Chemical: Quickly remove the person from the source of the chemical and remove any contaminated clothing or jewelry. Brush off dry chemicals and rinse the affected area with a large amount of water for at least 20 minutes. If available, use a safety shower or eyewash station for chemical eye exposure.
  2. Protect Yourself: Wear appropriate protective gear, such as gloves and goggles, to prevent the chemical from spreading to your skin or eyes.
  3. Do Not Use Neutralizing Agents: Avoid using neutralizing agents like vinegar or baking soda, as they react with certain chemicals, exacerbating the burn.
  4. Cover the Burn: After rinsing, cover the burn with a clean, non-stick cloth or sterile dressing. Avoid adhesive bandages, which  stick to the burn and cause further damage.
  5. Seek Medical Attention: Even if its minor burns, seeking medical help is essential. Chemical burns continue to cause damage beneath the skin's surface, and a healthcare professional assess the severity and provide appropriate treatment.


Electrical Burns

Electrical burns occur when the body comes into contact with an electrical current. This happens due to faulty wiring, electrical appliances, lightning strikes, or direct contact with power lines. The severity of the burn depends on factors such as the voltage of the current, the duration of contact, and the pathway the electricity takes through the body.

Electrical burns cause both external and internal injuries. The external injuries are visible on the skin, where the electrical current enters and exits the body. Internal injuries occurs in muscles, blood vessels, and organs along the path of the current. Additionally, electrical burns leads to complications such as cardiac arrhythmias, muscle damage, and nerve injury.


First Aid for Electrical Burns

Providing immediate first aid is crucial when dealing with electrical burns. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Ensure Safety: Before approaching the person, ensure that the electrical source is turned off or the person is no longer in contact with the electrical current to prevent further injuries.
  2. Call for Help: Dial emergency services immediately to report the incident and seek professional medical assistance.
  3. Do Not Touch the Person: Avoid touching the person until you are sure the electrical source is off to prevent the current from passing through you.
  4. Check for Breathing and Circulation: As a vital first aid step for burns, check for breathing and consciousness in severely injured victims. If the person is not breathing or does not have a pulse, start CPR. If you are not trained in CPR, the emergency operator guides you through the process.
  5. Treat Burns: Once the person is safe from the electrical source, assess the burns. Do not apply ice or cold water, as electrical burns cause internal injuries, and cold worsen tissue damage.
  6. Cover the Burns: Gently cover the burn area with a sterile bandage as a crucial first aid step. Avoid using adhesive bandages, as they stick to the burns.
  7. Monitor for Shock: In first aid for burns, vigilantly monitor the victim for signs of shock, such as pale skin, rapid breathing, or weak pulse. Elevate the burned area if possible, an important step in first aid for burns.
  8. Do Not Attempt to Remove Clothing: Do not try to remove clothing stuck to the burns. Instead, cut around the clothing to expose the burn without causing further damage.


Radiation Burns

Radiation burns, known as radiation dermatitis or radiation skin damage, occur when the skin is exposed to ionizing radiation. Radiation burns are primarily caused by exposure to ionizing radiation, which damages the DNA within skin cells. Medical radiation therapy, used to treat cancer, is a common cause of localized radiation burns. Other sources include industrial accidents, exposure to radioactive materials, and prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun or tanning beds.

The effects of radiation burns vary based on the type of radiation, the duration of exposure, and the individual's skin sensitivity. Symptoms include red and painful feeling, itching, dryness, peeling, blistering, and in severe cases, ulceration or necrosis of the skin. Radiation burns weaken the skin, making it susceptible to infections.


First Aid for Radiation Burns

While medical treatment is essential for severe cases, immediate first aid significantly alleviate discomfort and promote healing. Here are the steps to take when providing first aid for radiation burns:

  1. Remove the Source of Radiation: If the radiation exposure is ongoing (such as in an industrial accident), move the affected person away from the source of radiation immediately to prevent further damage.
  2. Remove Contaminated Clothing: Carefully remove any contaminated clothing from the affected area. Handle the clothing with care to avoid direct contact with your skin. Dispose of the contaminated clothing as per the appropriate guidelines for hazardous materials.
  3. Gently Cleanse the Area: Use mild soap and lukewarm water to gently cleanse the affected skin. Avoid scrubbing, as the skin is likely to be sensitive and scrubbing could cause further damage.
  4. Apply Cold Compresses: If running water isn't available, apply a cool compress as an alternative first aid solution for burns. Use a clean, damp cloth or sterile gauze soaked in cold water to make a cold compress. Apply it gently to the affected area for 15-20 minutes to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation. Do not use ice directly on the skin, as it causes frostbite.
  5. Avoid Topical Solutions: For effective first aid, avoid applying ointments or butter to burns. Avoid applying creams, lotions, or ointments to the radiation burn unless directed by a healthcare professional. Some substances might worsen the condition or interfere with medical treatment later on.
  6. Pain Management: Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) helps manage pain and reduce inflammation. Avoid nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen unless a healthcare professional advises.
  7. Protect the Area: Once the area is clean, cover it with a sterile, non-stick dressing or sterile gauze to protect it from further contamination and potential infection. Do not use adhesive bandages, as they stick to the burn. To aid recovery, protect the burn area from pressure and friction, following first aid protocols for burns.

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Severity of Burns

Burns are classified into different degrees based on their severity, and understanding these degrees is essential for proper assessment, first aid, and medical treatment.


First-Degree Burns

First-degree burns are superficial injuries that affect the outer layer of the skin (epidermis). They result in redness, minor swelling, and pain. The skin remains intact, and blisters do not form. Common causes include sunburn and brief contact with hot surfaces or liquids. 


Second-Degree Burns

Second-degree burns affect the skin's epidermis and the dermis (second layer). They lead to red or mottled skin, swelling, blisters, and intense pain. These burns are caused by prolonged exposure to hot objects or chemicals. First aid includes cooling the burn, gentle cleansing, covering it with sterile dressings, using pain relievers, and seeking medical attention for more extensive or severe burns.


Third-Degree Burns

Third-degree burns are the most severe, damaging all layers of the skin and underlying tissues. They result in white, black, or leathery skin and often destroy nerve endings, causing no pain in the affected area. These burns are caused by prolonged exposure to flames, hot liquids, electricity, or chemicals. Third-degree burns are life-threatening emergencies, requiring immediate medical attention. Treatment include surgeries and intensive medical interventions.


Common Causes of Burns

Burns  result from various sources, and understanding these common causes is essential for preventing accidents and promoting safety. Here are some of the most frequent causes of burns:

  • Heat Sources: Flames, hot liquids, hot objects, and surfaces causes burns upon contact.
  • Electrical Sources: Faulty wiring, malfunctioning appliances, and lightning strikes results in electrical burns.
  • Chemical Exposure: Contact with household or industrial chemicals and flammable liquids leads to chemical burns.
  • Radiation Exposure: Medical radiation therapy and prolonged sun exposure causes radiation burns.
  • Friction and Pressure: Friction burns from rough surfaces and pressure sores due to prolonged pressure, which leads to burns.
  • Cold Body Temperature: Prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures causes frostbite, leading to tissue damage and burns.


Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Burns

Common signs and symptoms of burns include:

  • Redness (Erythema): Redness of the skin at the burn site is a typical early sign. First-degree burns often present with redness, resulting from the skin's inflammation response.
  • Blisters (Vesicles or Bullae): Blisters filled with clear fluid or pus develops in second-degree burns. Blisters protect the underlying tissue and are a natural response to injury.
  • Swelling (Edema): Swelling is a common response to burn injuries and occurs due to the body's attempt to repair the damaged tissue. Swelling impeded blood flow and cause pain.
  • Charred Skin (Eschar): The skin appears charred, blackened, or white in severe third-degree burns. Charred skin is nonviable and often requires surgical removal.
  • Pain: Pain is a common symptom of burns, and its intensity vary based on the degree and depth of the burn. In third-degree burns, nerve endings are damaged, leading to reduced or absent pain at the burn site.


What are the potential complications of untreated burns?

Untreated burns leads to various complications, including:

  • Infections: Burns create an entry point for bacteria, increasing the risk of localized or systemic infections.
  • Scarring: Burns, especially second and third-degree burns, causes significant scarring, affecting both appearance and mobility.
  • Contractures: Scar tissue causes the skin to tighten, limiting the movement of joints and impairing functionality.
  • Loss of Function: Burns over joints or muscles leads to loss of function if not properly treated, affecting mobility and daily activities.
  • Psychological Impact: Severe burns causes emotional distress, leading to anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Can burns cause permanent scarring or disfigurement?

Yes, burns, particularly second and third-degree burns, results in permanent scarring and disfigurement. The extent depends on the severity of the burn and how well it's treated. Proper wound care, medical interventions, and rehabilitation therapies minimizses scarring, but the complete elimination of scars is challenging.


How can individuals identify and reduce their risk of sunburn?

To identify and reduce the risk of sunburn, you should be aware of the signs and symptoms including red, tender skin that is warm to the touch, swelling, and, in severe cases, blistering. To reduce the risk of sunburn:

  • Wear protective clothing like hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts.
  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and reapply every two hours.
  • Seek shade, especially during peak sun hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
  • Avoid tanning beds, as they emit harmful UV radiation.


Is it possible for burns to result in nerve damage or loss of sensation?

Yes, burns results in nerve damage, leading to loss of sensation. Burn injuries damage nerve endings, especially in severe cases. This cause numbness, tingling, or complete loss of sensation in the affected area. Rehabilitation and medical interventions might help regain some sensation, but complete recovery isn't always possible, especially in extensive or deep burns. Physical therapy and other treatments aids in maintaining mobility and functionality despite nerve damage.


What are the common mistakes to avoid in burn first aid?  

  1. Delaying Treatment: One common mistake is delaying the initiation of first aid. Immediate action is crucial to minimize the extent of the burn injury.
  2. Using Ice or Very Cold Water: Applying ice or extremely cold water directly to a burn further damage the tissue. Use cool, but not cold, water to alleviate pain and reduce heat.
  3. Applying Butter or Ointments: Butter, oil, or ointments should not be applied to burns. These substances traps heat, increase the risk of infection, and hinder proper healing.
  4. Ignoring Electrical Burns: Electrical burns are not always show external damage. Ignoring them or assuming they are minor leads to internal injuries. Seek medical attention for electrical burns.
  5. Removing Clothing Stuck to the Burn: Trying to remove clothing stuck to a burn cause more harm. Cut around the affected area and leave the clothing in place, as it protects against contamination.
  6. Neglecting to Cover the Burn: After initial cooling, it's important to cover the burn with a clean, non-stick bandage or cloth to prevent infection.
  7. Underestimating the Severity: Burns are classified into degrees (first, second, and third). Underestimating the severity of a burn leads to inadequate treatment. Seek professional medical help for severe burns.

What are the long-term care strategies for burn injuries?

For long-term care, seeking ongoing professional medical attention is paramount, especially for severe burns. Physical therapy aids in maintaining or improving mobility for burns affecting joints or causing scarring. Scar management techniques, such as massage and silicone sheets, help minimize scarring. Psychological support, through counseling or therapy, addresses the potential long-lasting emotional impact of burns. Maintaining a healthy diet supports the body's healing, and gradual, controlled exercise assists in restoring strength and functionality. Lastly, preventive measures, tailored to the specific hazard, should be implemented to avoid future burn injuries.

Over the past twenty years, there have been significant advancements in the treatment of burn patients, leading to improved outcomes. A study published in The Lancet in 2012 highlighted that patients with burns covering more than 60% of their total body surface area face increased risks and mortality compared to a decade ago when the threshold was 40%. Similar findings have been observed in adults and elderly individuals with severe burns. Recent and upcoming developments in burn care are being explored to further enhance outcomes, particularly in pediatric patients.

Burn Prevention Strategies

Here are the best prevention strategies to reduce the risk of burns,

  • Fire Safety: Install smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in your home. Have a fire escape plan and practice it regularly with your family.
  • Kitchen Safety: Supervise cooking at all times, especially when using high heat or open flames. Keep flammable items away from stoves, ovens, and other cooking appliances.
  • Hot Liquids: Test the temperature of hot liquids before consuming or giving them to children. Use spill-proof mugs or cups to reduce the risk of accidental spills.
  • Electrical Safety: Regularly inspect and maintain electrical appliances, outlets, and wiring. Keep electrical cords away from heat sources and do not overload outlets.
  • Child Safety: Childproof your home by installing safety gates, covers on electrical outlets, and securing cords. Educate children about the dangers of hot surfaces and objects.
  • Chemical Safety: Store household chemicals, cleaning products, and flammable substances out of reach of children. Use appropriate protective gear when handling hazardous chemicals.
  • Heating Safety: Maintain space heaters at a safe distance from flammable materials. Have heating systems, fireplaces, and chimneys inspected and cleaned regularly.
  • Workplace Safety: Follow safety protocols and wear appropriate protective gear in work environments involving heat, chemicals, or electricity. Take breaks and stay hydrated in hot working conditions to prevent heat-related injuries.
  • Car Safety: Keep a fire extinguisher in your vehicle. Avoid smoking inside the car, especially when refueling.
  • Campfire and Outdoor Safety: Follow campground rules and regulations regarding fires. Completely extinguish campfires before leaving the site.


By incorporating these key tips into daily routines and environments, individuals significantly reduce the risk of burns and create safer living and working spaces.


Diamond AW, Piggott RW, Townsend PL. Immediate care of burns. Anaesthesia. 1975 Nov;30(6):791-802. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2044.1975.tb00959.x. PMID: 1211594.

Jeschke MG, Herndon DN. Burns in children: standard and new treatments. Lancet. 2014 Mar 29;383(9923):1168-78. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(13)61093-4. Epub 2013 Sep 11. PMID: 24034453; PMCID: PMC7859869.