First Aid for Burns: Treatment & Prevention

Man treating burn under running cold water

Burns are one of the most common household accidents in Australia. Knowing first aid for burns is vital to ensure the correct treatment is provided.

This article is a complete guide to first aid for burns, we’ll discuss what burns are, how to treat them, and provide some tips on preventing this type of injury.

What are Burns?

A burn is an injury produced by heat, abnormal cold, chemicals, poison gas, electricity, or lightning. Burns result in severe skin and tissue damage that causes affected skin cells to die. Burns are one of the most common injuries within the home, particularly for children and older adults.

Smoking and open flames are the leading causes of burn injuries for older adults, whilst scalds are the leading cause of burn injuries for children.

Levels of Burns

The three primary levels of burns – superficial, partial thickness and full thickness – relate to the severity of skin damage they cause. Characteristics of the different levels can be summarised as follows:

  • Superficial – these burns cause damage to the first or top layer of skin only
  • Partial thickness – these burns cause damage to the first and second skin layers
  • Full thickness – involves damage to both the first and second skin layers, plus the underlying tissue

Depending on the thickness and cause of the burn, people can typically recover from a burn injury without serious health consequences. However, serious burns will require emergency medical care to avoid complications and even death.

Causes of Burns

Burns can occur in a variety of ways, including:

Thermal Burns

Thermal burns result from heat sources that raise the skin’s temperature, causing charring or dying of tissue cells. Thermal burns can be caused by:

  • Scalding liquids
  • Flames
  • Steam
  • Hot metals

Radiation Burns

Radiation burns result from sources of radiation such as x-ray or from prolonged exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Electrical Burns

Electrical burns result from alternating (AC) current or direct (DC) current.

Chemical Burns

Chemical burns are caused when strong alkalies, detergents, acids, or solvents come into contact with the eyes or skin.

Electrical and chemical burns can affect the body internally – even if the visible skin damage appears minimal – and, as such, require medical attention.

The level of burn is not dependent on the burn’s cause.

Scalding from hot liquids, for example, could result in any of the three primary burn levels – first, second, or full thickness – depending on the temperature of the liquid and for how long the liquid is in contact with the skin.

Treatment for Burns

Superficial Burns

Superficial burns only affect the skin’s outermost layer (epidermis) and cause minimal damage. As such, these types of burns are usually treatable at home. 

Typically, superficial burns heal within a week to 10 days and don’t generally result in scarring. The sooner the burn is treated, the faster the healing time is likely to be.

A typical type of superficial burn is mild sunburn.

A superficial burn usually presents as:

  • Pain
  • Minor swelling/inflammation
  • Redness

As the burn heals, the affected skin will appear dry and peel. There is usually no long term tissue damage in superficial burns. However, if the superficial burn affects a large area of skin and/or it’s on a major joint or your face, you should see a doctor.

Partial Thickness Burns

Unlike superficial burns, a partial thickness burn extends beyond the skin’s top layer and involves the epidermis and part of the skin’s dermis layer.

These types of burns typically take two to three weeks to heal, although sometimes longer. Partial thickness burns often don’t scar but may result in pigment changes to the skin.

Partial thickness burns typically present as:

  • Pain
  • Blistering
  • Swelling
  • Redness

Some blisters are likely to pop to produce a ‘weeping’ appearance. Also, fibrinous exudate – a scab-like tissue that is thick and soft – may form over the wound.

Healing time for partial thickness burns will depend on the severity of the blisters, and skin grafting may be required in severe cases.

Emergency medical treatment should be sought for partial thickness burns that affect a large, widespread area such as on the feet, buttocks, groin, hands, or face.

Full Thickness burns

Full thickness burns extend through every skin layer and cause more damage than superficial and partial thickness burns. These types of burns destroy both the dermis and epidermis layers and may also damage tendons, bones, and muscles.

Surprisingly, full thickness burns can be less painful because the damage is more extensive, with nerve damage impacting the patient’s ability to register pain.

Full thickness burns usually present as:

  • Charring
  • White and waxy
  • Dark brown
  • Raised/leathery texture
  • Undeveloped blisters

Full thickness burns should not be treated at home – call 000 immediately. Ensure clothing isn’t stuck to the burn and raise the injury above your heart while waiting for an ambulance.

Full thickness burns are likely to result in severe scarring and contracture (fixed tightening of tendons, ligaments, muscle, or skin) without surgery.

Full thickness burns can lead to complications, including blood loss, infections, and shock, which can lead to death.

The Effects of Burns

All levels of burns can lead to:

  • Infection (bacteria can enter broken skin)
  • Tetanus (a bacterial infection that impacts the nervous system)

Severe burns can lead to:

  • Hypovolemia – low blood volume from losing too much blood
  • Hypothermia – dangerously low body temperature from excess loss of body heat
  • Severe damage from both partial and full thickness burns may lead to issues with bones, organs, and deep skin tissues. In these cases, treatment may include:
  • Rehabilitation
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery
  • Assisted care

Burn Prevention

Burns can be caused in a number of ways, and there are steps we can take to prevent them. Although some types of work attract a greater burn risk, most burn injuries occur in the home. Young children and older adults are at the greatest risk of acquiring a burn injury.

There are many burn prevention steps we can take, including, but not limited to:

  • Implementing a fire escape plan
  • Having a fire extinguisher in your home (preferably in the kitchen)
  • Checking bath water temperature
  • Ensuring matches and lighters are out of reach of children
  • Testing and replacing smoke detectors regularly
  • Ensuring children and infants are not in the kitchen when cooking
  • Facing pot handles inwards on the stove
  • Checking water heater temperature
  • Discarding any electrical cords with exposed wires
  • Ensuring appliances such as irons and hair straighteners are turned off when not in use
  • Wearing sunscreen daily and avoiding peak sunlight
  • Stubbing out cigarettes completely
  • Keeping chemicals out of reach of children
  • Wearing gloves when using chemicals

First Aid for Burns

Burns can extend from a minor to an emergency, life-threatening injury depending on their size and depth. Knowing first aid for burns is crucial, no matter the seriousness of the burn, as the majority of minor burns can be treated at home.

When managing burns, the primary goals are to:

  • Control pain
  • Prevent infection
  • Reduce scarring
  • Remove dead tissue

For all types of burns, immediate first aid response should be to:

  • Remove any jewellery, clothing, or nappies from the burn area unless stuck to the skin
  • Run the affected area under cool running water until pain is reduced to a tolerable level (do not use ice!)
  • Loosely cover the burn with gauze, a damp, clean cloth (lint-free), or cling wrap
  • If the patient requires pain relief they should seek medical advice/treatment

You should seek emergency help for burns immediately if:

  • the patient is having difficulty breathing
  • the burn is deep (even if the patient is not in severe pain)
  • the face, genitals, hands, or airway is affected
  • it is an electrical or chemical burn
  • the burn is large in size (more than a 20 cent piece)
  • the affected skin has brown, black, or white patches
  • the skin is leathery in appearance
First Aid For Burns Infographic
Download This First Aid Resource For Burns Here

Enrol in a First Aid Course to Better Understand Burn Treatment

We have discussed the many ways to prevent burns, and by ensuring your home, surroundings, and workplace are safe, the prevention of burns can be aided.

It’s also important to have a well-stocked first aid kit in your home and workplace in case you ever need to apply first aid for burns.

Prevention is always better than the cure, but in instances where an accident has occurred, it’s important to have a solid understanding of immediate first aid treatment to respond to a medical emergency until professional medical assistance is available.

Our qualified first aid trainers are highly skilled and experienced, and will teach you about first aid treatment for a range of injuries and medical emergencies including burns. You can find out more about our first aid courses and what you can expect to learn on our courses page.

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