How To Treat A Burn: First Aid For Minor, First-Degree Burns

What’s The Best Way To Treat A Minor Burn? A Doctor Weighs In

January 29, 2021 Updated May 23, 2021

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Scary Mommy interviewed Dr. Reena Patel to provide in-depth medical insight on how to treat a burn. Dr. Patel is a board-certified family medicine physician practicing in Orange County, NY. 

Even the most minor, first-degree burns can still hurt a lot and make your skin feel like it’s on fire. Sure, you may get some relief when putting cool water on the burned area (and you should definitely do that), but most of us aren’t in the position of walking around with a cup of chilled water all day to soak our burned finger on-the-go. Fortunately, there are a lot of different ways out there to treat a burn. Unfortunately, some are based more on myth than on fact. Here’s what you need to know about how to treat a burn, including the best first aid remedies you should keep on hand at home.

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Definition of First-Degree Burns

According to Stanford Health Care, burns fall into three different categories that get increasingly serious as the numbers go up. So, first-degree burns are the most minor kind you can have, while third-degree burns can be extremely dangerous. Here, we’re only going to cover first-degree burns, as they can be treated at home. More severe second- and third-degree burns typically require immediate medical attention.

First-degree burns are superficial — meaning that they only affect the top layer of the skin, known as the epidermis. Typically, the burn site is red, painful, and dry. In slightly more serious first-degree burns, blisters can also form on the skin. Mild cases of sunburn may be considered first-degree burns. Other causes of first-degree burns include being scalded by boiling water, touching a hot pan, or getting a rope or rug burn.

How to Treat a Burn Right Away

To give a first-degree burn the best chance of healing quickly, you’re going to want to cool the burn immediately by running it under water with a temperature that is cool (but not freezing cold). If the burn is in a spot that makes this impossible to do in a sink, use the tub and/or shower. If none of these are available, put a cool, wet compress on the burn. Keep the burn area cool until the pain gets a little more manageable. Also, if the person who was burned is wearing any rings or other tight items near the affected area, try to remove those as soon (and gently) as possible since the area may swell.

You’re also going to want to put some antibiotic ointment on it ASAP. This will reduce the risk of infection. Then cover the burn with bandages or gauze. Stretch the burned area daily to avoid contracture, which is a tightening of the skin. This can prevent you from moving normally because of the stiffness it causes. Remember to keep your injury protected from the sun.

How to Treat a Burn Blister

Even if a burn is superficial, it can still cause a blister to develop, according to Dr. Reena Patel, a board-certified family medicine physician practicing in Orange County, New York. Certain ailments, a stye, are simply tricky to treat. The same can be said for treating a blister. “I don’t advise popping it if it is still intact,” Patel told Scary Mommy. “That small cushion of skin and fluid is actually protecting your skin underneath and aiding its healing.”

If the blister pops on its own, Patel advises against removing the skin left behind. Instead, she suggests letting it heal on its own. If the blister that popped was large enough, it may need debridement — the removal of damaged tissue or objects from a wound — but that depends on various factors. “If a blister is large or not improving over several weeks, it may be covering up a deeper burn or even infection that requires specialty burn management care,” Patel explained.

What to Put on a Burn

After you’ve taken steps to immediately cool the burn down, the next thing to do is gently wash the burned area with soap and water. Then, it may help to put a thin layer of ointment — like aloe vera or petroleum jelly — over the burn. Antibiotic ointment is not necessary for superficial burns. In fact, antibiotic ointments can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Finally, do not use cream, lotion, oil, or cortisone.

If the person with the burn is in pain, they can take over-the-counter pain medicine like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin), naproxen (such as Aleve), or aspirin. Just be sure to follow the directions on the bottle, especially when giving medicine to a child.

Home Remedies for Burns

Ask three different households what they put on burns, and chances are you’ll get three different responses (though they’re almost always something food-related). Of these edible home remedies, one that comes up frequently is honey. “I’ve had patients ask me about putting honey on their burns. This is because honey has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties,” Patel said. “I prefer a clean sterile dressing to keep a burn clean, but there has been some evidence that honey can soothe a superficial small burn.”

Honey is definitely not a good idea when dealing with burns that are deep, and/or large and open. Burns like these require medical attention, not something you also use to sweeten your tea. Speaking of which, Patel says that it’s important to note that honey in your cupboard may contain microorganisms. These microbes can get into a wound, cause infection, impair healing, and basically make things worse.

Butter is another popular home remedy you may hear about for minor burns. But according to Dr. Henry Schiller, a trauma and critical care physician at the Mayo Clinic, it’s one that should also be avoided. This is because the butter can hold heat in the skin, which can cause further damage and may increase the risk of infection.

Finally, salt is sometimes touted as a way to treat burns but, again, Patel doesn’t recommend this to anyone.

Dressing a Burn

After taking the initial steps to treat a burn, you may be wondering what to do next. Some people seem to think that covering the burn is the way to go, while others think it’s better to keep it uncovered and “let it breathe.” Again, this comes down to the severity of the burn and where on the body it’s located. According to Patel, superficial burns don’t need any dressing. But if the burn is any deeper — or you’re concerned about it becoming infected — she says that covering it is a good idea.

The Healing Process After a Burn

First-degree burns heal on their own time. The most superficial of burns might improve significantly in a few days or a week. But having said that, it’s not unusual for even minor burns to take up to three weeks to heal.

As the burn heals, there’s a good chance that it will itch, but do not scratch it. You don’t want to break the skin or disturb its regrowth. Sometimes, with deeper burns, you may find a scar forming on the site of the burn. If that happens, call your doctor to get advice as the burn might be more serious than you initially realized.

Changes in Skin Color

Unlike second- and third-degree burns, first-degree burns rarely result in tissue damage. They may, however, leave a patch of skin that is lighter or darker than the skin surrounding it. According to Patel, the time it takes for someone’s burned skin to return to its natural color varies from person-to-person.

“Time can be months, depending on the severity of the burn and how the individual person heals,” she explained. “After a burn heals, I recommend a scar gel or silicone sheet over the area to aid in scar resolution.”

How to Fade Burn Scars

Scars suck and sometimes a burn can an unpleasant mark behind. But no worries, there are plenty of ways to fade a scar. All you need is a little patience and a few natural remedies. 

  • Aloe vera: Cut the gel out of the prickly plant and rub it on your scar twice a day. Leave the aloe on for about thirty minutes, then wash it off.
  • Vitamin E: Get a jar of vitamin E capsules and squeeze the oil that’s inside of the pill, over your scar. You can also buy lotions that are filled with vitamin E. 
  • Coconut oil: Like lotion, rub the oil into your scar for a few minutes. Do this two to four times a day.
  • Honey: Cover your scar with this sweet syrup and bandage it before going to sleep. In the morning, wash it off with warm water. Do this every evening until the scar fades away.
  • Potatoes: Slice a piece of potato and rub it on your scar until it dries out. Repeat this process for about 20 minutes. Then, let the potatoes stickiness dry on your scar for 10 minutes. After you wash it off with warm water, pat it dry with a paper towel. Do this once a day.
  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes are for more than ketchup. It’s filled with potassium, calcium, and vitamins A and C, which are great for fading dark spots. Tomatoes not only help lighten skin but they’re also a hydrating moisturizer. So, slice a piece of this juicy fruit and rub it over your burn scar twice a day.