first aids for skin burns

First Aid: Skin Burns

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Skin burns are fairly common. It can range from a minor skin burn all the way to a deep and serious skin burn. Before we discuss the first aid management of skin burns, it is important to recognise that there are 3 different degrees of burns.


1st degree burns

In this kind of skin burn, only the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) is damaged. When examined, the skin appears slightly red and inflamed, is painful and mildly swollen.

2nd degree burns

This kind of skin burn not only affects the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) but also the layer that is immediately beneath it (dermis). The skin may be red and inflamed and can develop blisters. There is a fair amount of swelling and pain.

3rd degree burns

This is the most severe type of skin burn and extends from the outer layer of the skin all the way into the deeper tissues including the muscles and bones. They require immediate hospitalisation and medical management.

treating skin burns at home

First aid management of 1st degree burns (minor burn)

Below are the steps to be taken immediately after sustaining a skin burn.

Step #1 – Hold under cool water

Place the area that has been burned under cool running water. This should be done for at least 15 minutes. Alternatively, apply a cool wet cloth on the burned skin. This will bring down the skin temperature and will reduce any swelling that develops. We do not recommend using ice directly onto the skin as this can cause skin damage.

Step #2 – Apply a sterile bandage

Once the skin burn has been adequately cooled, allow it to dry (do not rub with cloth or pat dry) and wrap the skin in a loose sterile gauze or bandage. This prevents exposure of the burned skin to air and prevents the formation of blisters. It also helps to reduce the pain.

If the patient is experiencing a great deal of pain, simple painkillers such as paracetamol (Crocin) or ibuprofen (Brufen) can help reduce it. Always talk to your doctor before taking any medication.


Minor first-degree burns usually heal fairly quickly and do not require any additional treatment. There may be changing the colour of the skin and the area of the burn that could be either temporary or permanent.

As a patient, it is important to keep an eye out for the development of any redness or pus as this could indicate the presence of an infection. If an infection does develop, patients may have to apply antibiotic ointment onto the wound or take oral antibiotics.

First aid management of 2nd degree burns

Managing 2nd degree burns is similar to managing 1st degree burns. A second-degree burn that is less than 3 inches in size is classed as a minor burn. The management is exactly as described under first-degree burns.

It is important to recognise that burns that affect the face, groin, hands, feet and buttocks are more serious than burns anywhere else. These require immediate attention from a health care professional.

First aid management of 3rd degree burns

3rd degree burns is the most serious kind of burns. Individuals who suffer at 3rd degree burn require admission to hospital and emergency treatment.

If you have suffered a third-degree burn or have witnessed someone suffer a 3rd degree burn, call for an ambulance immediately or take the individual to hospital straight away.

Here are the important steps to observe until professional help has arrived.

  1. Make sure it is safe for you to approach the individual. You do not want to place your own life at risk when attempting to help someone.
  2. Once you have approached the individual, try and extinguish any fire and smoke using the appropriate methods. This can include using a fire extinguisher or covering the burning skin with a wet cloth so as to cut off the oxygen supply and stop the fire.
  3. Do not remove burned clothes as this can damage the nearby tissues.
  4. Do not attempt to cool down the burned skin using cold water or ice as this can decrease the body temperature and cause the individuals blood pressure to drop as well, resulting in circulatory shock.
  5. Cover the skin burn with a clean wet cloth or sterile bandage until help arrives.

Burn victims are at a higher risk of developing a cardiac arrest. Take a look at page XX on basic life-support to manage this.


Most of the after-care will be discussed in hospital. Patients may require a tetanus booster shot if they have not had one recently.

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