Burn First Aid

Assessment and Treatment of Burns

Burns happen to millions of Americans every year. Are you ready to treat burns?

There are only three degrees of burns, and all three refer to how deep the burn goes through the skin. Burns can go all the way down to the muscle and even bone, but skin is all we care about for the purposes of treatment.


Some burns are so critical they need to go directly to the hospital, even though some critical burns don't look that bad.


Burn Classifications

Young woman with sunburn tanlines, mid section
Sunburn is an example of radiation burn. Dougal Waters/The Image Bank/Getty Images

There are four classifications of burns: thermal, chemical, radiation and electrical. Chemical burns are injuries to skin that come from exposure to chemical substances. Electrical burns are self-explanatory. Thermal burns come from heat, which includes scalding hot liquids. Radiation burns come from anything that gives off radiation. The most common radiation burns come from the sun. Folks are often mistaken about the relationship between heat and sunburns. The sun doesn't need to be hotly bearing down on you, which is why you can get a sunburn on the ski slopes and even on a windy, overcast day. Sometimes, abrasions are called friction burns.

Depending on the severity of a burn, which is based on depth and size, you might need to see a doctor or call 911. Regardless of the severity of the injury, follow these steps to immediately treat a burn:

  1. Flush the burned area with cool running water for several minutes
  2. Call 911 for a severe burn (see below to learn if your burn is severe)
  3. Apply a burn ointment or spray for pain
  4. Take ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain relief if necessary

Detailed Instructions

To better understand how to treat burns, each step is listed below in greater detail with tips and complications to avoid.

  1. Cool the burned area with cool running water for several minutes. Don't spray burns with high pressure, just let the water run over the burned area for as long as you can. Minor burns can be cooled with tap water over the sink. Don't be afraid to rinse bigger burns with a hose outside.

    Do not use ice to cool a burn. Ice can cause frostbite very quickly when used on a burn because the skin is already damaged.

    If an ambulance is coming, don't stop cooling the burn with running water until the ambulance arrives.

  2. Call 911 if there is charring (blackened skin) or blistering (bubbles on the skin) in the following areas:
    • the face
    • the genitals
    • all the way around a wrist, arm, leg or ankle
    • covering most of a foot or hand
    • anywhere on the body covering an area bigger than the size of the chest

    Don't be afraid to call 911 if you believe this is an emergency regardless whether the injury matches this list or not. You are always the best judge of whether or not you need help.

  3. Minor burns can be treated with a topical burn ointment or spray to reduce pain. Ointments should be water soluble. Do not pop blisters.

    Continue cooling with running water to help with the pain.

    Do not apply butter or oil to any burn. Butter or lard may feel cool because it comes out of the refrigerator, but the oils will trap heat and make the burn deeper over time.

  4. Pain relief: Over the counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be used for the pain of a mild burn (typically redness only). If stronger pain relief is needed, call a doctor or go to the emergency department.


Second degree burn on hand
(c) Tim Ballantine

These pictures help illustrate the different burn degrees. Besides sunburns and thermal burns, there are also friction burns (road rash).