Burns: how to treat first, second and third degree burns


We look at the difference between between burns and when to seek medical assistance.

We all burn ourselves from time to time, whether it’s from a cooking accident, sunburn or running the bath too hot. Sometimes, though, domestic burns can be much more serious and need urgent medical attention.

So, what’s the difference between first, second and third degree burns and what’s the best first aid method? We look at the treatment, prevention and complications of burning yourself:

What are burns?

Burns are damage to skin and deeper tissue caused by contact with fire, heat, electricity, radiation, or caustic chemicals. Burns are classified according to the depth and extent of the skin damage, in the following way:

• First-degree burns

The skin is red, painful and very sensitive to touch. The damaged skin may be slightly moist from leakage of the fluid in the deeper layers of the skin.

• Second-degree burns

The damage is deeper and blisters usually appear on the skin. The skin is still painful and sensitive.

• Third-degree burns

The tissues in all layers of the skin are dead. Usually there are no blisters. The burned surface can appear normal, white, black (charred), or bright red from blood in the bottom of the wound. Damage to the sensory nerves in the skin can mean that third-degree burns may be quite painless as the burned skin lacks sensation to touch. A skin graft is usually necessary for significant areas of third-degree burns.

First aid for burns

The first thing to do is to limit the extent of the damage, and prevent the burn from becoming worse. Taking care that you do not put yourself at risk from the cause of the burns, move the person away from the danger area. Smother flames with a blanket or douse the person with water but beware of electricity or caustic chemicals.

Remove clothing or jewellery from the burned area but don’t try to peel back any clothing that is stuck to the skin. The burnt area must be cooled by being placed under tepid running water. The water should not be unpleasantly cold.

The first thing to do is to limit the extent of the damage, and prevent the burn from becoming worse.

Keep the damaged area under running water for at least one hour, or longer if the pain has not stopped. Up to four hours of this treatment can be beneficial. However, in severe burns it is more important to get the person to hospital for treatment, so don’t let this delay calling the ambulance.

Meanwhile keep the person warm, as a lot of heat can be lost from large burns so put a blanket or clothing around the non-injured areas. First-degree burns, eg mild sunburn, may not require this treatment although it may help to soothe discomfort.

Put cling film or a plastic bag over the burn before moving the person to hospital, but don’t wrap the cling film tightly round a limb. Do not put any creams on the burn at this stage, but you can give the person simple pain relief such as paracetamol.

When to see a doctor about a burn

In the following circumstances, seek help from a medical professional:

🔹 Burns that are bigger than the palm of the hand.

🔹 Burns on the face, neck, hands, and in the groin.

🔹 All chemical and electrical burns (electrical burns can look surprisingly minor while causing a lot of damage, and chemical burns may need specific treatment for the chemical that caused them).

Net Doctor


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