First aid and treatment for burns and scalds

Dietrich Easter

Accidents happen, and among the most common mishaps are burns and scalds. Whether you've touched a hot pan, spilled boiling water, or had a run-in with a curling iron, understanding how to treat burns and scalds promptly and effectively is crucial. In this article, we'll explore the different types of burns, their severity, and the essential steps to administer first aid.

Understanding Burns and Scalds

A burn is an injury to the skin or other tissues in the body caused usually by heat, chemicals, electrical contact, and overexposure to the sun or other radiation. Scalds occur when hot liquids or steam come into contact with the skin, causing injury. They can range from mild to severe based on the temperature and duration of exposure.

Burns are usually described in 3 degrees based on severity. 

Categorizing Burns

  • First-degree burns: These affect only the outer layer of the skin and typically result in redness and mild pain.
  • Second-degree burns: These involve both the outer layer and the layer beneath, causing blistering, severe pain, and potential swelling.
  • Third-degree burns: The most severe, third-degree burns affect all layers of the skin and can extend into the underlying tissues. These burns may appear charred or white and can result in numbness due to nerve damage.

Keep in mind that sometimes electrical currents can cause severe burns and internal damage to organs and tissues without much visible damage to the skin. Please seek immediate medical attention for electrical burns or lightning strikes. 

First Aid for Burns and Scalds

Immediate Action

Safety First: Before providing any aid, ensure the safety of yourself and others. Remove the person from the source of the burn or scald.

Cooling the Burn: For minor burns (first-degree and some second-degree burns), cool the affected area under running cold water for at least 10 minutes. This helps reduce pain and limits the extent of the burn. Avoid using ice, as it can further damage the skin.

Treatment Based on the Severity of the Burn

First-degree burns: Generally, these can be managed with first aid. Over-the-counter pain relievers and aloe vera gel can help soothe the pain and promote healing.

Second-degree burns: If blisters are present or the burn is larger than a small area (generally, more than 3 inches in diameter), seek medical attention. Do not pop blisters, as they are a natural barrier against infection.

Third-degree burns: Call emergency services immediately. Do not attempt to cool the burn, as it may lead to hypothermia. Cover the burn with a clean, dry cloth and wait for professional medical help.

Dressing the Wound

Use a sterile, non-stick dressing to cover the burn or scald after cooling. Avoid adhesive bandages directly on the wound, as they can cause further damage when removed.

Loose, non-fluffy materials like cling film or a clean plastic bag can also cover burns on hands or feet. This helps prevent infection and retains moisture.

Similar to burns, start by cooling the scalded area under cold running water. Remove any clothing or jewelry near the affected area, as these can retain heat.

For severe scalds or those involving a large area, seek medical help promptly.


Pain Management for Burns

Over-the-counter pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help manage pain and reduce inflammation. Always follow recommended dosages.



Keep the wound clean and dry. Change dressings regularly, and watch for signs of infection, such as increased redness, swelling, or discharge.

Avoid exposing the burn to direct sunlight until it's fully healed to prevent hyperpigmentation.

Avoiding Home Remedies

While folklore remedies exist, it's crucial to avoid applying butter, oils, toothpaste, or other substances to burns. These can trap heat and worsen the injury. Stick to proven first aid measures.


Stocking Your First Aid Kit

Being prepared for burn-related emergencies is essential and can be life-saving. Check that your first aid kit includes the supplies you need to apply proper first aid to burns and scalds. Here are some supplemental products to consider adding to your kits if yours don't already have them.


When to Seek Medical Attention

Consult a healthcare professional if:

  • The burn or scald covers a large area.
  • The burn is on the face, hands, feet, genitals, or major joints.
  • The burn is a third-degree burn.
  • The person is a child or elderly.
  • The burn is a result of chemicals or electricity.

Knowing how to treat burns and scalds is a vital skill for everyone. While minor burns can often be managed with basic first aid, recognizing the severity of the injury and seeking professional medical help when necessary is equally important. Quick and appropriate action can make a significant difference in the healing process and reduce the risk of complications. So, stay informed, stay safe, and be prepared to respond effectively in times of need.