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First Aid and Emergencies

Burns

Prevention - Home Treatment - When to Call a Health Professional

Burns are classified as first-, second-, or third-degree depending on their depth, not on the amount of pain or the extent of the burn. A first-degree burn involves only the outer layer of skin. The skin is dry, painful, and sensitive to touch. A mild sunburn is an example.

A second-degree burn involves several layers of skin. The skin becomes swollen, puffy, weepy, or blistered.

A third-degree burn involves all layers of skin and may include any underlying tissue or organs. The skin is dry, pale white or charred black, swollen, and sometimes breaks open. Nerves are destroyed or damaged, so there may be little pain except on the edges, where there may be second-degree burns.

A second-degree burn will cause skin to swell and blister, and it may also weep fluid. A third-degree burn may cause skin to look pale white or charred black.

Prevention

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  • Install smoke detectors on each story of your home. Check and replace the batteries regularly.

  • Keep a fire extinguisher near the kitchen. Have it inspected yearly.

  • Set your water heater at 49°C (120°F) or lower to avoid burns.

  • Don't smoke in bed.

    If your clothing catches fire:

    • Do not run, because running will fan the flames. Stop, drop, and roll on the ground to smother the flames. Or smother the flames with a blanket, rug, or coat.

    • Use water to douse the fire and cool the skin.

    To avoid kitchen burns:

    • Use caution when handling hot foods.

    • Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove.

    • Smother burning food or grease with a pot or pot lid.

    • Supervise children closely.

    Home Treatment

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    Third-degree burns require immediate medical treatment. Call a health professional and apply Home Treatment:

    • Make sure the source of the burn has been extinguished.

    • Have the person lie down to prevent shock.

    • Cover the burned area with a clean sheet.

    • Do not apply any salve or medication to the burn.

    First- and second-degree burns can be treated at home as follows:

    • Run cold tap water over the burn for 10 to 15 minutes. Cold water is the best immediate treatment for minor burns. The cold lowers skin temperature and lessens the severity of the burn. Do not use ice, because it may further damage the injured skin.

    • Remove rings, bracelets, watches, or shoes from the burned limb. Swelling may make these items difficult to remove later.

    • Leave the burn alone for 24 hours. Don't cover the burn unless clothing rubs on it. If clothing rubs the burned area, cover the burn with a gauze pad taped well away from the burn. Do not encircle a hand, arm, or leg with tape. Change the bandage after 24 hours, and then every 2 days.

    • Do not put salve, butter, grease, oil, or ointment on a burn. They increase the risk of infection and don't help the burn heal.

    • After 2 to 3 days of healing, apply the juice from an aloe leaf to soothe minor burns.

      If the burn causes blisters to form:

    • Do not break blisters. If blisters break, clean the area by running tap water over it and applying a mild soap. Apply an antibiotic ointment, such as Polysporin or Bacitracin, and cover the burn with a sterile dressing. Don't touch the burned area with your hands or any unsterile objects. Remove the dressing every day, clean the burned area with mild soap, and cover it again.

    • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Don't give aspirin to anyone younger than 20.

    When to Call a Health Professional

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    • For all third-degree burns.

    • If you are in doubt about the extent of a burn, or in doubt whether it is a second- or third-degree burn.

    • If a second-degree burn involves the face, hands, feet, genitals, or a joint and is more than 2.5 cm (1 inch) in diameter.

    • If the burn encircles an arm or leg, or if it covers more than of the body part involved.

    • If the pain lasts longer than 48 hours.

    • If signs of infection develop:

      • Increased pain, swelling, redness, or tenderness.

      • Heat or red streaks extending from the area.

      • Discharge of pus.

      • Fever of 37.8°C (100°F) or higher with no other cause.

      • If a child younger than 5, an older adult, or a person with a weakened immune system or a chronic health problem (such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes) is burned.

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