It is essential to apply appropriate first aid to any burn as soon as possible. This will limit the amount of damage to your skin. You may need to apply these first aid techniques to yourself or to another person who has been burnt.
First aid for burns
First aid advice for burns and scalds caused by heat, such as flames, is outlined below.
- 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, but do not attempt 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.
- Make sure that the person keeps warm, using a blanket or layers of clothing (avoiding the injured area). This is to prevent hypothermia occurring, when a person's body temperature drops below 35°C (95°F). This is a risk if you are cooling a large burnt area, particularly in children and the elderly.
- Cover the burn with cling film in a layer over the burn, rather than by wrapping it around a limb. A clean, clear plastic bag can be used for burns on your hand.
- The pain from a burn can be treated with paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always check the manufacturer's instructions when using over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Children under 16 years of age should not be given aspirin.
Once you have taken these steps, you will need to decide whether further medical treatment is necessary (see box, right). See Recovery for advice about what to do next.
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 accident and emergency (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).
As with electrical burns, chemical burns can be very damaging and immediate medical attention should be sought at an A&E department.
If possible, find out what chemical caused the burn so that you can inform the healthcare professionals when receiving medical assistance.
If you are assisting someone else, wear appropriate protective clothing, then:
- remove any affected clothing from the person who has been burnt
- if the chemical is in a dry form, brush it off the skin
- use running water to remove any traces of the chemical from the burnt area
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 experience any pain, paracetamol or ibuprofen should help to 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. These include dizziness, a rapid pulse or vomiting.
Seek medical advice if you experience any of the symptoms of heat exhaustion or heatstroke. See Complications for more information.
A scald is a burn that is caused by hot liquid or steam. Scalds are managed in the same way as burns.
Shock is a life-threatening condition that occurs when there is an insufficient supply of oxygen to the body.
Body tissue is made up of groups of cells that perform a specific job, such as protecting the body against infection, producing movement or storing fat.