Burn Guide: When to Treat at Home and When to See a Doctor

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Primary Burn Types and Treatment
Burns remain at the top of the list of most common household injuries. A burn describes both a physical sensation and the death of skin cells as a result of exposure to the source of the burn. Many times, burns can be treated at home and a full recovery is the result. However, there are also many times when a burn is more serious and, therefore, requires immediate emergency medical care.

The Primary Burn Types

First, second, and third degree are the three primary types of burn. First-degree burns are those which cause minor damage to the skins upper layer. Second-degree burns cause moderate damage to underlying layers of the skin, and third-degree burns extend to all skin layers.

There is also a fourth-degree burn, which affects all layers of the skin but also damages bones and tendons.

Identifying Burn Types

There are several characteristics that indicate a first-, second-, or third-degree burn. Knowing what to look for can help you to decide whether or not a call to a physician is necessary.

First-Degree Burns

First-degree burns affect the epidermis or outer layer of the skin and do not normally require urgent care. They are characterized by redness, which may or may not be accompanied by swelling or minor inflammation. First-degree burns are painful, and you may notice dry or peeling skin as healing occurs in the days following the burn.

Because first-degree burns affect the skins top layer, the symptoms above will disappear within the 7 to 10 days it takes for skin to shed its damaged cells. Although most first-degree burns can be treated at home, there are some cases which require a doctors visit. These include:


  • When the burn affects an area of the skin that’s larger than 3 inches
  • When the burn is located on the face
  • When the burn is located on a major joint, such as the elbow, knee, foot, ankle, or spine


Treating First-Degree Burns

There are several ways to treat a first-degree burn. Although it may be tempting to try to soothe the pain of a burn with ice, this may worsen the damage to skin, as applying ice to the already-damaged skin can result in frostbite. As well, icing a burn can slow the healing process and is, therefore, not a recommended option.

Instead, try soaking the wound in cold water for five minutes or more. Acetaminophen can help to relieve any pain. Ibuprofen is another option when acetaminophen is not available. Once soaking is done, you can soothe the burned area by applying lidocaine with aloe vera gel or cream. Loose gauze should be placed over the wound to protect it, and primary care should not be sought unless pain is significant.

Never use cotton balls to protect any burn, as their small fibers can increase infection risk when they become stuck to the injured area.

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Second-Degree Burns

Second-degree burns are characterized by blisters, intense redness, and a moderate to high degree of pain. Blisters can open and cause the burn to have a weeping or wet appearance. As the burn heals, a thick tissue called fibrinous exudate may develop to cover the wound.

Second-degree burns may take as little as two weeks or longer than three weeks to heal completely and without scars. Regardless, some changes to skin pigment may be observed. The length of time it will take for the skin to heal from a second-degree burn is largely dependent on the severity of blistering; highly severe blisters will indicate a longer healing time.

Emergency medical treatment may need to be sought in some cases, such as when the burn affects a widespread area like the feet, hands, groin, or face.

Treating Second-Degree Burns

Because this type of burn is more severe, care must be taken to prevent infection and allow for quicker healing. This can be done by ensuring that the affected area is kept clean and is properly bandaged.

Second-degree burns are best treated by running cool water over the affected area for 15 minutes or more. Again, cotton balls should not be used to protect the area; as with first-degree burns, an antibiotic ointment should be applied with sterile gauze placed over the wound. A concierge medicine provider may not be needed unless pain or redness is significant.  For pain, an over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen product may be needed.

Third-Degree Burns

Because third-degree burns cause damage to all layers of the skin, they should never be treated at home. Many times a third-degree burn is not accompanied by any pain, which can mislead the victim into thinking that the burn is not severe. However, its important to note here that the reason many third-degree burns are painless is because nerve damage has occurred.

Third-degree burns can be characterized by the observation of:


  • Skin with a leathery and raised texture
  • Blisters which do not open or otherwise develop
  • Skin that is white in color and waxy in appearance
  • Skin that is charred or dark brown in color


If any of these characteristics are observed, 911 should be called right away and the injured area raised above the heart until help arrives. Surgery will likely be required in order to avoid skin contracture and scarring.

primary care treating burns

Why must third-degree burns be treated in this manner? Because they carry a high risk of complications. Shock, blood loss, and infection are all very possible if a third-degree burn is not treated properly. All of these complications can lead to serious health issues unless emergency care is administered by a medical professional. Another risk of burns of all degrees is tetanus, which causes the painful muscle contractions.

Treatment of Burns by Cause

Often, the best treatment option, such as that by a provider of retainer medicine can be dictated by the cause of the burn. This section will provide more information about how best to treat burns according to how they occurred.

Burns Caused by Cold

If the burn is due to the exposure of skin to prolonged cold temperatures, the best way to treat it is to warm the skin by the blowing of warm air, by the immersion in warm water, or by enveloping it in warm and dry blankets or clothing. Any clothing that is wet should be removed, and physical activity that doesnt cause perspiration but creates body heat should be begun.

Burns Caused by Heat

Treating thermal burns or those caused by heat involves extinguishing any flames by dousing with water or covering with a blanket. Clothing thats on fire should be extinguished by the stop, drop, and rollmethod.

Burns Caused by Electricity

Before treating any electrical burn, ensure its safe to approach the victim by first removing him or her from the electrical source while standing on a rubber mat. Then the victims breathing should be confirmed, and their pulse checked to confirm a heartbeat. If neither of these is present, CPR should be started while a call to 911 is made.

If the electrical burn is minor, it can be rinsed with water and have a bandage applied to protect the skin. Check the patient for electricity entry and exit points, as burns can be present there as well. Any visible burns should be assessed by a medical professional offering same day service.

Burns Caused by Hot Plastic or Tar

The first step after having been burned by hot plastic or tar is to run cold water over the substances. This will allow them to contract and cool. Check for additional injuries. Clothing that appears to be stuck to the burn should not be removed. However, any loose clothing can be carefully cut away. Any jewelry should be removed as soon as possible to avoid additional problems in the case of swelling.

Burns Caused by Chemicals

Unless the burn was caused by carbolic acid, phenol, sulfuric acid, hydrofluoric acid, dry powders, or metal compounds, the skin should be rinsed with water at room temperature to remove the chemical from the skin. The chemical involved should be identified, and then the local Poison Control Center or National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222) called for treatment assistance.

Chemical burns to the eye should be immediately treated by flushing the eye with large amounts of water. This will reduce the chance of eye damage.

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Burn Treatment with Primary Care Providers

Burns can be a serious medical issue, and no one can predict when they will occur. Thats why its important to have access to a health care resource that offers extended hours. Primary care providers that focus on the patient and not on the paperwork can ensure you get the burn care you need when you need it, without the stress of a waiting room.