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Burns – Types and Treatments

Burns can be very painful. They can occur anytime and anywhere, but what is a burn? A burn occurs when there is severe damage to the skin, which causes the skin cells to die in the affected area. Therefore it is important to know about the different types of burns, as well as the treatment involved for each type. Let’s take a look at the most common types of burns and their respective treatments.

There are several types of burns including first degree, second degree, third degree and fourth degree burns.

First degree burns can be identified by the following criteria:

    • Only the outer layer of skin is affected
    • The burn site is red, painful and dry
    • There are no blisters
    • Peeling skin


First degree burns are mainly superficial and include mild sunburn and flash burn, which is exposure to sudden bursts of heat. The pain usually lasts between 24-48 hours after which it subsides.

Treatment for first degree burns varies according to the location and extent of the burn. However, the most common treatments include:

  • Soaking the wound in cold water for 5 minutes or longer
  • Applying a cold compress
  • Applying antibiotic ointment or aloe vera for a soothing effect
  • Applying loose gauze to protect affected area

Please DO NOT:

  • Use ice, as this makes it worse.
  • Use cotton balls on the affected area as the small fibres may stick to the burn and increase the risk of infection.
  • Use home remedies, such as applying butter or eggs, as these have not been proven to be effective.

These burns usually heal within 7 to 10 days without scarring. However, please see a doctor if the burn covers an area of more than 3 inches or it is located on your face or a joint such as knee, shoulder, or on the spine, foot, elbow, forearm.

Second degree burns can be identified as such:

  • They involve the epidermis (outer layer of skin) and part of the dermis (layer below the epidermis) layer of skin
  • Thickening of the skin
  • The burn site is a deep red and painful to the touch
  • The burn site is blistered and may appear wet and shiny
  • May be white or discoloured
  • May be swollen
  • Over time, thick, soft scab like tissue may develop over the wound

Second degree burns are usually caused by coming into contact with a hot object, flames, sunburn, chemicals and electricity. It is important to keep the wound clean and protected by cleaning the affected area and changing the dressing daily in order to prevent infection. These types of burns usually take approximately 3 weeks or more to heal, mostly without scarring, but sometimes there might be pigment changes to the skin.

Most of the time second degree burns can be treated in the following ways:

  • Running the affected area under cold water for 15 minutes or longer
  • Antibiotic creams
  • Pain medication

Please seek emergency medical treatment if the burn has affected a widespread area such as the face, hands, buttocks, groin or feet.

Third degree burns are the most severe and affect all layers of skin. The pain might not be as severe as there may be nerve damage.

Third degree burns can be identified as such:

  • Both the epidermis and dermis layer of skin are destroyed
  • Burn appears white, waxy and/or charred
  • Dark brown colour
  • Raised and leathery texture

Third degree burns are caused by coming into contact with a boiling hot liquid, or a hot object for a long period of time, flames or a chemical or electrical source. These burns can heal slowly without medical attention. If you or someone you know has such a burn, it needs to be evaluated immediately – go to your nearest medical emergency centre for treatment. The severity of the burn also depends on the amount of skin that is affected.

Treatment may include:

  • Cleaning and treatment of the area using surgical procedures
  • Drips used to provide electrolytes and oral antibiotics
  • Antibiotic ointments
  • Pain medication
  • Tetanus injections
  • Skin grafting and cosmetic reconstruction for the affected area.

Without surgery, these wounds will leave scars. If you have a third degree burn, please do not treat it yourself, go to the nearest emergency centre or if you have called for help, raise the injury above your heart while you wait and ensure that no clothing is stuck to the burn.


Fourth degree burns:

  • All the symptoms of third degree burns
  • Can damage underlying bones, muscles and tendons
  • Nerve endings are destroyed and as a result there is no sensation in the affected area

Tips for preventing burns:

  • Keep children out of the kitchen while cooking.
  • Turn all pot handles towards the back of the stove.
  • Ensure that there is a fire extinguisher in or near the kitchen.
  • Test smoke detectors once a month and replace them every 10 years.
  • Test bath water temperatures before use.
  • Lock up matches and lighters.
  • Keep chemicals out of reach.
  • Wear sunscreen every day and avoid peak sunlight.

Please take note of the above tips and if you or someone you know experiences one of these types of burns, please get them medical care immediately so as to avoid any severe damage. Knowing how to distinguish between the different types of burns and the treatment involved can save a life.