First-, Second-, and Third-Degree Burns
You have likely heard of first-, second-, and third-degree burns, but you might not know how to recognize them, avoid them, and respond to them when necessary.
- First-degree burns are very common injuries that burn only the top layer of your skin, the epidermis. They generally cause the skin to turn red
and become sensitive to touch. They never blister, although if blistering occurs later, it indicates that the burn was a very mild second-degree burn.
Common examples of first-degree burns are sunburns or tanning burns. You can often avoid or reduce the severity of a burn by being prepared with sunscreen lotion and applying it to commonly exposed areas, like the face, neck, back, arms, and legs.
You can treat these types of burns by applying a cold compress or cooling it off with cold water. To treat the pain, use an over-the-counter pain reliever like ibuprofen, and lightly apply burn cream or aloe vera to the area. You should not treat the burn with ice, oil, grease, or butter, even if it seems like it will relieve the pain and dryness.
These burns should last up to 20 days (but usually last less than a week) and symptoms should disappear when the skin is shed, but areas with thinner skin may take longer, such as the face, back of the hands, and tops of the feet. If the symptoms persist, or you notice that the burned skin starts to look worse, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.
- Second-degree burns are slightly more intense, reaching the dermis—the layer of skin beneath your epidermis. This often causes the skin to blister
and become extremely sensitive. Blisters may pop on their own or from everyday activity, but you should avoid popping it on purpose, as the open area underneath will leave
you susceptible to infections. Burns on larger areas may not blister, and just have a shiny, wet apperance.
Common causes of second-degree burns include accidents in the kitchen. To avoid, you should be mindful of heated dishes and appliances, and use oven mitts when handling pots, pans, items taken from the oven, and even dishes that you may have been microwaving for a few minutes.
Like first degree wounds, use a cold compress or cool water until the pain stops. Do not apply ice or ice water; the skin is in a vulnerable state, and you could cause tissue damage. After cooling the burn down, clean the area with soap and water and dry it off lightly with a fresh cloth, taking care not to break any skin layers. Apply antibiotic ointment immediately afterwards and—if the wound is open—bandage the wound loosely (just enough to protect it from dirt and bacteria, but not too tight, in case the area swells). Regularly clean the area, apply ointment, and use a clean bandage. If there are any signs of infection, or the burn covers an area larger than a couple quarters, you should consult your doctor.
- Third-degree burns are burns that reach beneath the dermis, burning the fat layer underneath. They can appear brown, black or white and look like wax or leather, with no blistering. Because these burns are so severe, there may not be any pain, as the nerves could have been damaged. These burns are caused by high-temperature sources, like a fire or burning oil, or chemicals, like acid, and should only be treated by a trained doctor. If you suspect that you have a third-degree burn of any size, call 911 immediately and try to raise the injured area above your heart.
Also keep in mind that there can be long-term effects of second- and third- degree burns. Depending on the area, scarring or permanent color pigmentation can occur. Further, if the burned area is near a joint, scar tissue could develop around the area and limit movement. If you develop a burn around a joint, you should contact your doctor to make sure that you are taking all the steps you should to avoid any permanent damage.