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Burns - How to treat at home, and when to see a doctor

Posted on February 1, 2017 at 6:05 PM

Burns - How to treat at home, and when to see a doctor


Burns can be caused by many things, including UV rays from the sun (sunburn), water, grease, hot food, chemicals, electricity. They are classified by severity - first, second, third, and fourth degree.


First degree burns are your typical sunburn, where the skin looks pink/red and is dry and painful to touch. They can also be caused by hot water (between 120’F and 220’F), which is why I recommend that parents set their home boiler thermostat to 120 degrees. The pain of a first degree burn typically resolves in about 2 days, and it heals in 3-4 days without any scarring. Sometimes, about a week later, the skin becomes itchy and peels.


Second degree burns are typically caused by scalding liquids (boiling water, grease, hot oatmeal spilling on you, etc). Second degree burns cause the skin to turn red and blister, and they are quite painful. They take longer to heal than first degree burns - anywhere from days to weeks - and usually heal without scarring, but may scar depending on the severity.


Third degree burns are so bad that the nerves in the center of the burn get completely damaged, so the middle of the burn doesn’t hurt. However, there is always some surrounding second degree burn, so they do hurt on the edges. The skin and underlying fat/muscle in the center of a 3rd degree burn are white. These burns heal with scarring.


Fourth degree burns go all the way down to the bone, and thankfully they are extremely rare. I won’t talk about them any more here, but you can call or email me if you have questions about fourth degree burns.


Treatment at home for sunburn or other first degree burns:

1. As soon as you notice a burn forming, cool the area with cool (not cold) running water. Do NOT apply ice.

2. For sunburns, you can apply sunblock after the area is cooled down (even after the burn) to prevent it from getting worse.

3. Give the appropriate dose of ibuprofen - it is anti-inflammatory and will prevent the burn from getting worse.

4. Make sure to drink extra water - this will help it to heal faster.


Reasons to go to the doctor:

- Any burn in any child less than 2 years old

- Any burn (other than a mild sunburn) that is larger than 5% of the body surface area. A person’s palm is the size of 1% of body surface area, so you can use that as a guideline to estimate how much surface area is affected.

- Any burn that encircles (all the way around) an arm or leg

- Any electrical burn

- Any burn that looks like it might be infected (oozing, weeping, pus, or if there is fever)

- Any second degree burn that is larger than 1% (a palm-sized area)

- Any second degree burn that is on the hands, feet, face, or genitals

- Any third or fourth degree burn


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