More than 500,000 people receive medical treatment for burn injuries in the United States and Canada each year. The most common cause of burns are scalds (from steam, hot water, etc.), fire, chemicals, electricity and overexposure to the sun. The severity of a burn is based on the depth of the burn:
- First-degree burns involve the top layer of skin;
- Second-degree burns involve the first two layers of skin;
- Third-degree burns penetrate the entire thickness of the skin and permanently destroy tissue.
Here are some general and specific tips from the National Safety Council for treating minor and major burns, including electrical and chemical burns:
What Not to Do:
- Don't use ice - it can cause further damage to wound.
- Don't apply butter or ointments - they can increase severity of the burn.
- Don't break blisters - broken blisters are more vulnerable to infection.
For minor burns:
(First- and second-degree burns no larger than 3 inches in diameter)
- Cool the burn. Hold under cold running tap water until the area is free from pain even after removal from the water. If this is not possible cool with a cold compress.
- Cover the burn with a sterile nonstick dressing and bandage. Don't use fluffy cotton or other material that can stick to or leave lint in the wound. Wrap the bandage loosely to avoid putting pressure on burned skin. Bandaging reduces pain, protects blistered skin and helps prevent infection.
- Take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
For major/severe burns:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Do not remove clothing that is stuck to the skin. However, do make sure the victim is no longer in contact with smoldering materials or exposed smoke or heat.
- Do not immerse large severe burns in cold water. This could cause a drop in body temperature (hypothermia) and deteriorate blood pressure and circulation causing shock.
- Check for responsiveness and signs of normal breathing. If there is no normal breathing begin CPR.
- Treat for shock: have the person lie on back, elevate legs if no trauma and maintain normal body temperature (cover with a sheet or blanket).
Electrical burns can be difficult to recognize. Often the entry and exit points of the electrical current are not easily found, so be extremely careful with a person with an electrical burn. Victims of electrical burns should always seek medical care.
While waiting for medical care:
- Look first. Don't touch. A person may still be in contact with an electrical source, which could shock you.
- Unplug or turn off the source of electricity if possible. If not possible, do not touch the victim. Call 911.
- Check for responsiveness and normal breathing. If there is no normal breathing, being CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) immediately.
- If responsive and breathing, treat for shock. Lay the person down and elevate the legs, if there is no trauma. Maintain normal body temperature.
- Cover the affected areas. If the person is breathing, cover burned areas with sterile gauze (nonstick preferred) or a clean cloth. Don't use a blanket or towel. The loose fibers can stick to the burns.
All chemical burns are medical emergencies. Most will require outpatient care. Some may develop into or cause deep tissue damage. Signs and symptoms include:
- Redness or irritation at the site of contact
- Pain or burning sensation at site of contact
- Formation of blisters or discolored skin at contact site
- Vision changes if the chemical gets into your eye
- Cough or shortness of breath
While waiting for medical care:
- Identify the chemical involved. Check the safety data sheet (SDS/MSDS) for information.
- Move the victim away from fumes or ventilate the area.
- With a gloved hand or piece of cloth, brush off any dry chemical.
- Remove clothing and jewelry from the burn area, if it is not stuck to the skin. This is very important, as burned areas swell immediately.
- Flush the entire area as quickly as possible with large amounts of running water. Flush until EMS personnel arrive to give definitive care or until a topic specific solution is available.
- Contact the Poison Control Center in your area or 911. Many chemical burns may be treated with local wound care. Some chemicals can cause life- and limb-threatening injuries and need emergency care.
- Flush burned eyes with large amount of running water until EMS arrives. Remove contact lenses. Seek emergency care.
Burn Prevention and Treatment Resources:
- NSC tips to prevent burns (pdf)
- CDC burns page
- FEMA scald and burn prevention (pdf)
- Hot and Burn Hazard signs and labels at ComplianceSigns.com