Home Safety: Prevention and First Aid for Burns

More than 2 million Americans suffer from burns each year. Burns are also one of the greatest causes of accidental injury in children. The good news is that most burns are preventable.

Burns are most often caused by electricity, chemicals, and scalding from hot liquids (especially in children). Radiation, sunlight or tanning beds, and hot objects also cause burns.

Severity of Burns

Physicians categorize burns into four categories (or degrees), depending on severity.

  • First-degree burns affect the top layer of skin and cause redness and pain. They usually heal within three to six days with first-aid treatment at home (see below).
  • Second-degree burns damage the top two layers of the skin and can cause swelling. They may look wet or moist and often develop blisters due to loss of fluids from damaged blood vessels. These burns typically heal in two to three weeks.
  • Third-degree burns extend into the fat layer below the skin, which may appear stiff, waxy, shiny, leathery, or tan. Third-degree burns can damage nerves, causing numbness, and they take a long time to heal.
  • Fourth-degree burns are very serious and may affect bones and muscle.

Treatment for Burns

Run cool water over mild burns for 10 to 20 minutes. Apply burn cream or aloe to protect the skin while it heals. Use an over-the-counter pain reliever if needed.

See a physician if your burn is associated with increased pain, swelling, redness, or discharge, or if it doesn't heal in several weeks. Seek emergency care if you're burned on the hands, feet, face, groin, or buttocks, or if the burn affects a major joint. Untreated burns can lead to infection, loss of blood, dangerously low body temperature, breathing problems, scarring, or bone and joint problems.

Don't break blisters or put oil, butter, ice, or ice water on your burn. Furthermore, do not apply anything to a chemical burn; it may cause a reaction and make the burn worse.

Preventing Burns at Home

Taking simple precautions can help to prevent burns.

  • Use care when handling hot liquids, especially around children.
  • Cover unused electrical outlets and replace damaged cords.
  • Keep fire extinguishers on every floor, especially in the kitchen, and learn how to use them.
  • Stay at least three feet from space heaters and keep them away from combustible substances.
  • Check your smoke detectors and change the batteries regularly.
  • Set your hot water heater to 120 to 130 degrees F to prevent scalding.
  • Don't put water on grease fires.

Craig Kraffert, MD, reviewed this article.



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