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Burns and scalds - Introduction

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Burns and scalds are damage to the skin caused by heat. Both are treated in the same way.

A burn is caused by dry heat, from an iron or fire for example. A scald is caused by something wet, such as hot water or steam.

Burns can be very painful and can cause blisters and charred, black or red skin.

Read more information about the symptoms of burns and scalds, including the different types of burn.

Treating burns and scalds

To treat a burn, follow the first aid advice below:

  • Immediately get the person away from the heat source to stop the burning.
  • Cool the burn with cool or lukewarm water for 10-30 minutes. Do not use ice, iced water or any creams or greasy substances, such as butter.
  • Remove any clothing or jewellery that is near the burnt area of skin, but do not move anything that is stuck to the skin.
  • Make sure the person keeps warm - for example by using a blanket - but take care not to rub it against the burnt area.
  • Cover the burn by placing a layer of cling film over it.
  • Use painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to treat any pain.

Read more about treating burns and scalds.

The British Red Cross website has a video about first aid for burns

When to get medical attention

Every year, around 13,000 people are admitted to hospital for burns and scalds. Many thousands more go to hospital accident and emergency (A&E) departments.

Depending on how serious a burn is, it may be possible to treat it at home. For minor burns, keep the burn clean and do not burst any blisters that form.

More serious burns will require professional medical attention. You should go to a hospital A&E department for:

  • all chemical and electrical burns
  • large or deep burns - any burn bigger than your hand
  • full thickness burns of all sizes - these burns cause white or charred skin
  • partial thickness burns on the face, hands, arms, feet, legs or genitals - these are burns that cause blisters

If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also seek medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed and can include coughing, a sore throat, difficulty breathing or facial burns.

People who are at greater risk from the effects of burns, such as children under five years old and pregnant women, should also get medical attention after a burn or scald.

The size and depth of the burn will be assessed and the affected area cleaned before a dressing is applied. You should also be given instructions on changing your dressing.

Read more information about recovering from burns and scalds.

If you need advice about a burn, you can:

Use the services directory to find minor injury units and walk-in centres near you.

Medical Review: February 23, 2012
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