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Types of Burns and How to Treat Them

Every year, nearly 500,000 people in the US seek medical treatment for burns. This injury occurs when heat, chemicals, electricity, radiation or sunlight harms the skin. The tissue damage caused by burns can be quite painful, even if the injury is relatively mild. The injured area can also become infected if left untreated.

Burns are categorized by their degree of severity. Health care professionals determine the degree of a burn based on how deep the injury goes. The recommended treatment depends on the cause and severity, though all burns should be kept clean and bandaged. Learn more about the three classifications of burns and how to treat each one.


How common are burns?

Burns are common injuries, most of which happen on accident. Of the 500,000 burn injuries that occur each year, about 40,000 require hospitalization. About 3,300 burn victims die annually, and up to 10,000 Americans die from burn-related infections.

Children are the most at risk for accidental burns. In fact, about 435 kids in the US ages 0 to 19 receive emergency medical treatment for burns every day. Other high-risk demographics include teens—who are most likely to play with fireworks and get sunburned—and older adults—who are prone to burn injuries from cooking and scalding tap water.


What can cause burns?

Burns can occur for many reasons. Here are some of the most common causes.

  • Thermal sources (fire, hot liquids, steam, contact with hot surfaces)
  • Chemicals (cement, acid, drain cleaner)
  • Sunlight (UV rays)
  • Electricity
  • Radiation


How to prevent burns

Because of the many ways burns can happen during day-to-day life, it’s important to take certain precautions. Here’s how to reduce your risk of burns.

  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed skin before going outside.
  • Set your water heater to 120 degrees to reduce the risk of scalding at the tap. Test the shower or bath water before bathing a child.
  • Store lighters, matches and chemicals in a secure, locked cabinet.
  • Use the stove’s back burners when cooking with children around. Turn pot handles inward where they won’t be bumped. Don’t hold a child while cooking, and don’t leave a hot stove unattended.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen and know how to use it.
  • Install electrical outlet covers to prevent curious children from sticking anything into the sockets.
  • Set up safeguards around a lit fireplace, and never leave children unattended in the area.
  • Install smoke alarms and test them once a month. Having functional smoke alarms cuts your chances of being killed in a fire by 50 percent.
  • Create a fire escape plan with your family. Make sure everyone knows at least two exit routes from each room, and identify a safe meeting place outside.


First-degree burns

First-degree burns are considered mild or superficial because they only injure the top layer of skin called the epidermis. Most cases of sunburn are first-degree burns. Typical symptoms include redness and pain. 

How to treat first-degree burns

While this is the least serious type of burn, it can leave a scar if not treated properly. If you or a loved one shows signs of a first-degree burn, provide at-home care by following these tips.

  • Run cool water over the burn or apply a cool, wet compress. Do not apply ice as this can cause tissue damage.
  • For sunburn, apply cooling aloe vera gel.
  • For thermal burns, apply antibiotic cream or petroleum jelly and cover lightly with a gauze pad or other non-adhesive bandage.
  • Do not apply ointment or butter to the burn, which increases the risk of infection.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medicine to relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  • Stay out of the sun for a few days. Once the burn heals, protect it from further damage by seeking shade, wearing protective clothing or applying sunscreen.

First-degree burns typically heal without further treatment. However, you should seek medical attention if the burn covers a large area of the body or the victim is an infant or older adult.


Second-degree burns

Second-degree burns affect the epidermis and the next layer of skin called the dermis. Symptoms include pain, redness, swelling, blistering and a glossy appearance.

How to treat second-degree burns

Treatment for second-degree burns is similar to treating first-degree injuries. In addition to the above tips, follow these further recommendations.

  • Seek prescription antibiotic cream containing silver sulfadiazine from your health care provider.
  • Elevate the burn area to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Do not break blisters.
  • Remove jewelry or restrictive clothing that could become too tight if the skin swells.

Second-degree burns often require medical treatment. If you have severe pain, blistering, or burns on your hands, feet, face or genitalia, call a health care provider immediately.


Third-degree burns

Third-degree burns affect all three layers of the skin—the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat. The injury also destroys hair follicles, sweat glands and nerve endings. The burned skin may be black, white or red, as well as leathery or charred in appearance. Due to the damaged nerve endings, a third-degree burn may not hurt, but patches of first- and second-degree burns surrounding it might.

How to treat third-degree burns

Third-degree burns can be life-threatening and require special medical care. Until you arrive at the hospital, follow these first-aid tips to care for someone with third-degree burns.

  • Cover the burn lightly with a sterile gauze pad or clean cloth.
  • Do not apply ointments to the burn.
  • To prevent shock, lay the victim flat and elevate the feet about 12 inches. Also, elevate the burned area above the victim’s head when possible.
  • If the face is burned, have the victim sit up. Watch closely for breathing problems and signs of shock.

Seek immediate medical attention for third-degree burns. Treatment may include the following.

  • Water-based treatment, such as ultrasound mist, cleans and stimulates the wound tissue.
  • Breathing assistance and feeding tubes may be necessary for people with extensive burns or burns on the face and neck.
  • IV fluids prevent dehydration and organ failure.
  • Strong medication can help control the pain, while IV antibiotics fight infections.
  • Surgical skin grafts replace damaged tissue with healthy skin from another part of the victim’s body. If not enough healthy skin remains, temporary donor skin may come from a deceased donor or artificial source.
  • Reconstructive surgery improves the appearance of burn scars and increases the flexibility of joints affected by scarring.
  • Physical therapy helps keep the skin stretched so the joints remain flexible. Occupational therapy improves muscle strength and coordination to help make daily tasks easier.


The Paul Silverstein Burn Center at INTEGRIS Baptist Medical Center is one of the only burn care centers in Oklahoma. Since its opening in 1975, this facility has become one of the largest burn centers in the US. The mission of the INTEGRIS Paul Silverstein Burn Center is not only to save lives, but to reach “beyond survival” to improve patients’ quality of life after sustaining severe burns. If you or a loved one has been injured, please visit our website to learn more about treatment.


INTEGRIS Paul Silverstein Burn Center

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