Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on November 03, 2020

Burns: Causes and How to Treat Them

It’s not only heat from a flame that can burn your skin. Chemicals, radiation, and even bike accidents can do it. Some only sear the surface of your skin. Others go deep. How you treat a burn depends on how you got it and how serious it is.

First-Degree Burns

This is the least severe type you can get. It damages only the first, or outer, layer of your skin. It may hurt and turn red for a little while, but it’s not serious. These are also called superficial skin burns.

Second-Degree Burns

These affect the top two layers of your skin and can cause severe pain. It’s normal to see swelling or a blister. Your skin will be red, white, or blotchy. These types of burns sometimes leave a scar.

Third-Degree Burns

These damage your skin to the deepest layer and the tissue below it. The burn may turn black, brown, or white and look leathery. Instead of causing pain, the area might feel numb because a burn this severe can damage your nerves. These injuries leave scars and destroy sweat glands and hair follicles, too.

Minor Burns

These are smaller than 3 inches across. They may be red like a sunburn. They can cause blisters and pain. But they’re not very serious and won’t need medical care.

How to Treat a Minor Burn

You should be able to take care of these at home with a few exceptions. Get care right away for even mild burns to your eyes, mouth, hands, or genitals. Otherwise, hold a cold compress on the burn or place it under cool (not cold) running water. Don’t use ice or butter. You can put antibiotic cream on the sore if you like. Then cover it with a clean bandage. Take a pain reliever if necessary. Gently clean the area with soap and water every day. Minor burns should heal within a couple of weeks. 

Major Burns

These are deep and bigger than 3 inches in diameter. They could also be any burn that covers your face, hands, feet, buttocks, groin, or a major joint. Burns from chemicals or electricity are major, too. This type of injury can leave your skin dry and leathery. You may see patches of black, brown, or white.

How to Treat a Major Burn

Call 911 or go to an emergency room. If you’re waiting for an ambulance, you will need to take care of the person with the burn. Make sure the person isn’t still touching whatever burned them. Check that they are breathing. If not, start rescue breathing. Cover the burn with a cool, moist bandage or cloth. Raise the burn above the level of their heart. Take off any jewelry or belts around the burned area in case of swelling.

Medical Treatment for Major Burns

Your doctor will come up with a plan to treat your burn. You may need IV fluids to keep you hydrated. The care provider might apply creams, ointments, and bandages. You could need medicine for pain and anxiety. You might get water treatments to clean and treat the wound. Some severe burns need care from a special burn center.

Causes: Thermal Burns

These happen when you come into contact with too much heat. This is the most common cause of burns. You get them from fire, hot liquids, hot surfaces, steam, and other sources of high heat. The treatment depends on how severe it is.

Radiation Burns

A sunburn is a type of radiation burn caused by UV rays from the sun or tanning beds. Long exposure to X-rays or radiation treatment for cancer can produce them, too. Cool baths, aloe lotion, and painkillers can ease sunburn. Be gentle with burns from medical procedures, and ask your doctor about the best way to soothe your skin.

Chemical Burns

Acids, drain cleaners, gasoline, paint thinners, cement, and other substances cause these burns. The redness and pain can sometimes happen hours after you touch the chemical. Rinse the skin with cool running water for at least 10 minutes right away. Take off any clothing that touched the chemical.

Electrical Burns

These happen when your body comes in contact with electricity. It can give you first- second- or third-degree burns. This type of injury can also damage your organs. Get medical care right away so a doctor can check for internal damage. Your doctor might do blood and urine tests, along with tests on your heart.

Friction Burns

You might hear these called “road rash” when they happen during a bike or motorcycle accident. Sports injuries and accidents with treadmills or factory machinery can cause them, too. They happen when a hard surface scrapes off the skin and creates a burn-like sore.

Follow-Up for Burns

After a burn, see a doctor right away if you have a fever; a blister filled with green or brown fluid; bad-smelling drainage; major swelling; increasing pain; or redness that’s spreading. Get medical help if your burn doesn’t heal in about 10 days to 2 weeks.

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