To distinguish a minor burn from a serious burn, the first step is to determine the degree and the extent of damage to body tissues. The three classifications of first-degree burn, second-degree burn and third-degree burn will help you determine emergency care:
The least serious burns are those in which only the outer layer of skin (epidermis) is burned. The skin is usually red, with swelling and pain sometimes present. The outer layer of skin hasn't been burned through. Treat a first-degree burn as a minor burn unless it involves substantial portions of the hands, feet, face, groin or buttocks, or a major joint.
When the first layer of skin has been burned through and the second layer of skin (dermis) also is burned, the injury is termed a second-degree burn. Blisters develop and the skin takes on an intensely reddened, splotchy appearance. Second-degree burns produce severe pain and swelling.
The most serious burns are painless and involve all layers of the skin. Fat, muscle and every bone may be affected. Areas may be charred black or appear dry and white. Difficulty inhaling and exhaling, carbon monoxide poisoning or other toxic effects may occur if smoke inhalation accompanies the burn.
For minor burns, including second-degree burns limited to an area no larger than 2 to 3 inches in diameter, take the following action:
- Cool the burn. Hold the burned area under cold running water for at least 5 minutes, or until the pain subsides. If this is impractical, immerse the burn in cold water or cool it with cold compresses. Cooling the burn reduces swelling by conducting heat away from the skin. Don't put ice on the burn. Putting ice directly on a burn can cause frostbite, further damaging your skin.
- Do not break the blisters as this can cause infection.
- Cover the burn with a sterile gauze bandage. Don't use fluffy cotton, which may irritate the skin. Wrap the gauze loosely to avoid putting pressure on burned skin. Bandaging keeps air off the burned skin, reduces pain and protects blistered skin.
- Avoid re-injuring
For major burns, find emergency medical assistance immediately. Until help is found, follow these steps:
- Don't remove burnt clothing. However, do make sure the victim is no longer in contact with smoldering materials or exposed to smoke or heat.
- Don't immerse severe large burns in cold water. Doing so could causes shock.
- Check for signs of circulation (breathing, coughing or movement). If there is no breathing or other sign of circulation, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Cover the area of the burn. Use a cool, moist, sterile bandage; clean moist cloth; or moist towels.