How to Treat a Burn

How to treat a burn at home

Minor burns are a common household injury, especially in young children.  Most minor burns, while extremely painful, will heal completely if properly treated and leave no lasting damage or scars.  However, there are several misconceptions and false information about treating minor burns at home. Below is a step-by-step list of the Do’s and Don’t’s.


  1. DO run cool water on a minor burn for several minutes (5 to 10).  NO COLD WATER.  Cool water is room temperature water as it comes from the tap using both hot and cold in a mixture.  You should comfortably be able to run your hand under it without it feeling cold.   
  2. DO cover the burned area with a clean, DRY cloth. Ideal options are:
    • Gauze dressings
    • Clean
    • Sealed packaging that is opened at the time of use
  3. Ibuprofen is wonderful at not only helping to treat pain but also in keeping inflammation under control. 
  4. If ever in doubt about the severity of a burn, seek medical attention by going to an Urgent Care or calling 911. 


  1. DO NOT apply any oils, salves, butter, ice, honey, or Grandma’s famous lard-based burn concoction.  
    • DO NOT apply any foreign substances to the skin other than room temperature water.
    • DO NOT use commercially marketed burn lotions or sprays.  Remember, the skin is the body’s protective layer and has been compromised.  These products are not aseptic, especially after often being stored in a cabinet, closet, or under a bathroom sink.
  2. DO NOT pop blisters at all costs.  The skin inside the blister is healing and is not properly protected from nasty, invading microbes looking for a free lunch.  Popping blisters greatly increases the risk of infection.
  3. DO NOT underestimate the severity of a burn, especially if the skin is damaged beyond simply being red.  

Burns are classified into 4 Levels based on the damage they do to the body.  (Burn Centers also classify burns by the mechanism - fire, scalding, chemical, electrical, etc.  We are going to keep it simple here).  The first two are the most commonly encountered in the household in day-to-day activities:

  1. Superficial Burn (In the past referred to as 1st Degree)

    • Only the outermost layer of the skin has been damaged.  Red, inflamed, and painful.  A sunburn is an example.
  2. Partial-Thickness Burn (2nd Degree)

    • Damage has broken through the outermost layer of skin and has occurred in the underlying layers of skin.   Swelling, blistering and pain.  Will likely appear wet or shiny.  Highly susceptible to infection.  
  3. Full-thickness Burn. (3rd degree)

    • All layers of skin have been burned and damage is into the subcutaneous tissue.  These burns themselves are painless as the nerves are burned away but the surrounding edges will be partial-thickness burns and extremely painful.  White, black, brown, charred, or leathery skin will surround the wound.  THIS BURN IS A MEDICAL EMERGENCY AND A 911 CALL!
  4. Deep Tissue Burn. (4th degree)

    • Muscle and bone have been burned.  Life-Threatening in any form or size!    

Burns are amazingly deceptive in appearance.  All levels of burns are worse than they may appear.  Often, redness and a blister are the only indications of a partial-thickness burn.  All burns immediately compromise the skin’s ability to ward off foreign microbes and are an immediate avenue for infection if mishandled. 

This is why any burn that blisters or breaks the skin should be examined and treated by a medical professional.  Partial-thickness burns (aka 2nd degree) to the face, hands, feet, and genitals can have life-altering consequences if not properly treated.  Emergency medical treatment should be sought.