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Burns and scalds - Treating burns and scalds

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Appropriate first aid must be used to treat any burns or scalds as soon as possible. This will limit the amount of damage to your skin.

You may need to apply the following first aid techniques to yourself or to another person who has been burnt.

First aid for burns

Follow the first aid advice below to treat burns and scalds:

  • Stop the burning process as soon as possible. This may mean removing the person from the area, dousing flames with water or smothering flames with a blanket. Do not put yourself at risk of getting burnt as well.
  • Remove any clothing or jewellery near the burnt area of skin. However, don't try to remove anything that is stuck to the burnt skin because this could cause more damage.
  • Cool the burn with cool or lukewarm water for 10-30 minutes, ideally within 20 minutes of the injury occurring. Never use ice, iced water or any creams or greasy substances, such as butter.
  • Keep yourself or the person warm. Use a blanket or layers of clothing, but avoid putting them on the injured area. Keeping warm will prevent hypothermia, when a person's body temperature drops below 35C (95F). This is a risk if you are cooling a large burnt area, particularly in young children and elderly people.
  • Cover the burn with cling film. Put the cling film in a layer over the burn, rather than wrapping it around a limb. A clean, clear plastic bag can be used for burns on your hand.
  • Treat the pain from a burn with paracetamol oribuprofen. Always check the manufacturer's instructions when using over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Children under 16 years of age should not be given aspirin.

When to go to hospital

Once you have taken these steps, you will need to decide whether further medical treatment is necessary. Go to a hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department for:

  • all chemical and electrical burns (see below)
  • large or deep burns - any burn bigger than the affected person's 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

Also get medical help straight away if the person with the burn:

  • has other injuries that need treating or is going into shock (signs include cold, clammy skin, sweating, rapid, shallow breathing and weakness or dizziness)
  • is pregnant
  • is over 60 years of age
  • is under five years of age
  • has a medical condition such as heart, lung or liver disease, or diabetes (a long-term condition caused by too much glucose in the blood)
  • has a weakened immune system (the body's defence system), for example because of HIV or AIDS or because they're having chemotherapy for cancer

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, singed nasal hair or facial burns.

Read more about recovering from burns and scalds for information on how serious burns are treated.

Electrical burns

Electrical burns may not look serious, but they can be very damaging. Someone who has an electrical burn should seek immediate medical attention at an A&E department.

If the person has been injured by a low-voltage source (up to 220-240 volts) such as a domestic electricity supply, safely switch off the power supply or remove the person from the electrical source using a non-conductive material. This is a material that does not conduct electricity, such as a wooden stick or a wooden chair.

Do not approach a person who is connected to a high-voltage source (1,000 volts or more).

Chemical burns

Chemical burns can be very damaging and require immediate medical attention at an A&E department.

If possible, find out what chemical caused the burn and tell the healthcare professionals at A&E.

If you are helping someone else, wear appropriate protective clothing, then:

  • remove any clothing that has the chemical on it from the person who has been burnt
  • if the chemical is dry, brush it off their skin
  • use running water to remove any traces of the chemical from the burnt area

Sunburn

In cases of sunburn, follow the advice below:

  • If you notice any signs of sunburn, such as hot, red and painful skin, move into the shade or preferably inside.
  • Take a cool bath or shower to cool down the burnt area of skin.
  • Apply after-sun lotion to the affected area to moisturise, cool and soothe it. Do not use greasy or oily products.
  • If you have any pain, paracetamol or ibuprofen should help relieve it. Always read the manufacturer's instructions and do not give aspirin to children under 16 years of age.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
  • Watch out for signs of heat exhaustion or heatstroke, when the temperature inside your body rises to 37-40°C (98.6-104°F) or above. Symptoms include dizziness, a rapid pulse or vomiting.

If a person with heat exhaustion is taken quickly to a cool place, given water to drink and has their clothing loosened, they should start to feel better within half an hour. If they don't, they could develop heatstroke. This is a medical emergency and you'll need to call 999 for an ambulance.

Read more about what to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke.

Read more information about the complications of burns and scalds.

Medical Review: February 23, 2012
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