First- and Second-Degree Burns

A burn occurs when skin is exposed to too much heat, sun, or harsh chemicals. A first-degree burn (superficial burn) causes only redness, like a sunburn. It heals in a few days. A second-degree burn (partial-thickness burn) is deeper and causes a blister to form. This may take up to 2 weeks to heal.

Home care

Follow these guidelines when caring for yourself at home:

  • On the first day, you may put a cool compress on the burn to relieve severe pain. You can use a small towel soaked in cool water as a cool compress.

  • If a bandage was put on, change it once a day, unless you were told otherwise. If the bandage sticks, soak it off under cool, clean running water.

  • Before changing a bandage, wash your hands. Then wash the area with soap and clean, running water to remove any cream, ointment, ooze, or scab. You may do this in a sink, under a tub faucet, or in the shower. Rinse off the soap and pat the area dry with a clean towel. Look for signs of infection listed below.

  • Put on any prescribed cream or ointment to prevent infection. This also keeps the bandage from sticking.

  • Cover the burn with a nonstick gauze. Then wrap it with the bandage material.

  • Change the bandage as soon as you can if it gets wet or dirty.

  • Unless a pain medicine was prescribed, use over-the-counter medicine to control pain. If you have chronic liver or kidney disease, talk with your health care provider before using acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Also talk with your provider if you’ve had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding.

  • Eat more calories and protein until the wound is healed. Drink plenty of water.

  • Wear a hat, sunscreen, and long sleeves while in the sun to protect your skin.

  • Don’t pick or scratch at the affected areas. Keep your fingernails trimmed short.

  • Wear loose-fitting clothing.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. Most burns heal without becoming infected. Sometimes an infection may occur even with proper treatment. Be sure to check the burn daily for the signs of infection listed below.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these signs of infection occur:

  • Pain in the wound gets worse

  • Redness or swelling gets worse

  • Pus comes from the wound

  • Red streaks in your skin come from the burn

  • Fever of 100.4º F (38º C) or higher, or as directed by your healthcare provider

  • Wounds don’t appear to be healing

  • Nausea or vomiting 

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