Medically Reviewed by Mahammad Juber, MD on September 22, 2022
4 min read

A burn is when you have tissue damage, usually after contact with heat.

There are three types of burns:

  • First-degree burns (superficial burns) are mild compared to other burns. They cause  pain and reddening of the epidermis (outer layer of the skin).
  • Second-degree burns (partial thickness burns) affect the epidermis and the dermis (lower layer of skin). They cause pain, redness, swelling, and blistering.
  • Third-degree burns (full thickness burns) go through the dermis and affect deeper tissues. They result in white or blackened, charred skin that may be numb.
  • Fourth-degree burns go even deeper than third-degree burns and can affect your muscles and bones. Nerve endings are also damaged or destroyed, so there’s no feeling in the burned area.

The symptoms of burns depend on the cause and type of burn:

First-degree burns:

  • Red, painful skin
  • No blisters

Second-degree burns:

Third-degree burns:

  • White, black, deep red or charred skin
  • May be painful but could be numb

Fourth-degree burns:

  • No feeling in the area
  • Destroyed skin tissue, fat, muscle and possibly bone

Depending on how bad the burn is, some people may go into shock. Symptoms of shock may include pale and clammy skin, weakness, bluish lips and fingernails, and a drop in alertness.

First- and second-degree burns usually get better on their own, but third- and fourth-degree burns need medical attention right away. Call your doctor if a second-degree burn is deep and doesn’t start to feel better soon.

Thermal burns are the most common kind of burns. These burns happen when flames, hot metals, scalding liquids, or steam come into contact with skin. This can happen in many  circumstances, including house fires, vehicle accidents, kitchen accidents, and electrical malfunctions.

Other things that can cause burns include:

  • Radiation
  • Friction
  • Heated objects
  • The sun
  • Electricity
  • Chemicals

Burn treatment depends on the type of burn.

  • First-degree burns can usually be treated with skin care products like aloe vera cream or an antibiotic ointment and pain medication such as acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Second-degree burns may be treated with an antibiotic cream or other creams or ointments prescribed by a doctor.
  • Third-degree and fourth-degree burns may need more intensive treatments such as intravenous (IV) antibiotics to prevent infection or IV fluids to replace fluids lost when skin was burned. They may also need skin grafting or the use of synthetic skin.

If the burn is serious, you’ll need to call 911. There are some things you can do until medical professionals get there:

  • Get the person away from the cause of the burn. If the cause was something electrical, make sure the power is off before getting close to them.
  • Check to see if the person is breathing. If not, start rescue breathing (mouth-to-mouth resuscitation) if you know how.
  • Take off anything that might keep them from moving freely and easily, like jewelry or a belt.
  • Cover the burned area with a clean, cool washcloth or a slightly wet bandage. Don't put a large, serious burn in water -- that can cause a sudden drop in body temperature and lead to hypothermia.
  • Keep the burned area raised above heart level if you can.
  • Keep a close eye out for signs of shock, like fainting or dizziness, pale skin, and shallow breathing. If you notice any of these, try raising their feet and legs a bit but don’t move them. If they start to throw up, turn them on their side.

Burn pain can be intense and prolonged. It’s difficult to control because of its unique characteristics, its changing patterns, and its various components.

In addition, there’s pain involved in the treatment of burns, as the wounds must be cleansed and the dressings changed. Studies show that aggressive treatments for pain are needed with serious burns.

It’s important to get treatment for major burns right away because they can lead to serious health issues, including:

  • Sepsis (a kind of infection that happens when bacteria get into your bloodstream)
  • Tetanus (a disease caused by a certain type of bacteria that get into your body through an open wound)
  • Hypovolemia (a dangerous loss of body fluids, like blood)
  • Hypothermia (a severe drop in body temperature)
  • Breathing issues from smoke or hot air
  • Bone and joint problems caused by scar tissue’s effects on skin, muscles or tendons

You can take some simple steps to prevent burns at home, especially in the kitchen:

  • Always pay close attention to anything on the stove, and turn pot and pan handles toward the back so you don’t accidentally hit them.
  • Don’t hold your baby or young child while you’re cooking, and keep them away from any appliance that can get hot. Cover electrical outlets with caps.
  • Keep a fire extinguisher on every floor of your house and make sure there are working batteries in your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Don’t smoke in bed.
  • Set the maximum temperature of the hot water in your house to less than 120 degrees, and always check the temperature of the water before putting your child in the bathtub.
  • Check the temperature of any buckles or straps before putting your child in the car, especially if the car has been parked in the sun.
  • Be careful with chemicals, and wear protective goggles when you use them. When you’re not using them, keep them away from kids and out of the house, ideally locked in a secure, child-proof place.
  • Don’t put electrical appliances anywhere near water, unplug them when they’re not in use, and put them in a safe place away from kids.