First Aid: Burns


Burns are one of the leading causes of childhood injury. Approximately 4000 people die each year in the United States from fire and burn injuries. Of the 3 degrees of burns, first-degree burns are the least severe.

  • First-degree burns, which occur when only the outer layer of skin is burned, are considered minor unless they involve a large surface area or are located in an area such as the groin, buttocks, or over a major joint.
  • Second-degree burns, which penetrate the first and second layers of skin, can be treated as minor burns as long as they do not exceed in diameter.

Signs and Symptoms

A patient who has experienced a first-degree burn will exhibit the following signs:

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Pain

Causes/Common Triggers

A number of circumstances can cause a minor burn, including:

  • Scalding from hot liquids
  • Skin contact with hot objects or flames
  • Exposure to chemicals
  • Excessive sun exposure

Tests and Diagnosis

The severity of a burn is determined by its depth. A first-degree burn occurs when only the top layer of skin is burned. If it is difficult to determine how severe a burn is, the patient should consult with a physician or seek treatment at the emergency department, as severe burns cannot be treated at home.


Several precautionary steps can be taken to prevent minor burns, including:

  • Using oven mitts or gloves when handling hot objects in the kitchen
  • Wearing protective clothing and gloves when dealing with chemicals
  • Always applying sunscreen when exposed to the sun
  • Avoiding showering or bathing with extremely hot water
  • Taking extra precautions when dealing with flames
  • Keeping hot objects/substances away from young children


If an individual is handling substances that may cause a burn, it is important to always take preventive measures and to be particularly mindful of younger children. After a burn has healed, it is important to avoid re-injuring the area, as this may cause the skin to become more pigmented, leading to more scarring. Patients can take OTC pain relievers as needed and should avoid applying butter or ointments to the area.

Treatment and Care

Patients who suffer a second-degree burn that is larger than wide or a third-degree burn should go to an emergency department immediately. In the event of a first-degree burn or a second-degree burn that is less than wide, patients should run cool water over the area for at least 5 minutes. Ice should not be used on the burn. Patients can also apply aloe vera or an antibiotic ointment, and then wrap the area loosely with a dry bandage.

Homeopathic and Alternative Remedies

Several home remedies can be used to treat minor burns, including honey, toothpaste, and vitamin E, but it is important to consult a physician before trying them. Applying any substances to the area may increase the chance of an infection, especially if the skin is broken.


A number of OTC products can be used to treat burns, including aloe vera cream and antibiotic ointments, and pain relievers such as aceaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Pharmacists can help recommend products to relieve symptoms.

Resources for Patients

The following resources may provide patients with more information on first aid:

  • Mayo Clinic First Aid
  • American Red Cross Plan and Prepare

Resources for Pharmacists

  • American College of Emergency Physicians
  • National Safety Council

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