Man at urgent care for burn on hand

Burn Care 101

Apr 08, 2024 Urgent Care Share:

When it comes to burns, knowing what to do - and what not to do - can make a world of difference in your recovery. From minor first-degree burns to more severe burns, understanding the appropriate steps to take can help prevent infection, minimize scarring, and expedite the healing process.

But when do you need to seek professional medical attention? This comprehensive guide will walk you through the different types of burns, their causes, how to treat a burn at home, and when it's time to get medical help.

Types of Burns

A burn is an injury to the skin or tissues caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, sunlight, or radiation, resulting in damage and pain. Burns vary in severity, ranging from mild first-degree burns to life-threatening third-degree burns. The severity and cause of your burn will inform the treatment you need.

Burn Severity

Burns are generally categorized first by their severity. First-degree burns are the least severe burn type. These burns are superficial, only affecting the topmost layer of skin, the epidermis. If you have a first-degree burn, you may experience some redness, mild swelling, and minor pain, but you can expect your burn to heal without scarring in about a week.

Examples of first-degree burns include:

  • Most sunburns
  • Minor steam burns from cooking
  • Brief contact with a hot object, such as a cooking pan or curling iron
  • Mild scalds from a hot liquid, such as coffee spilled onto the skin

Second-degree burns affect the top two layers of skin, the epidermis and the dermis. Second-degree burns cause redness, swelling, blistering, and more severe pain. These burns may also scar.

Second-degree burns can result from:

  • Contact with flames
  • Prolonged contact with a hot object, liquid, or steam
  • Chemical exposure
  • Severe sunburns

Third-degree burns are the most severe type of burns. These burns penetrate the full thickness of the skin, destroying both the epidermis and the dermis. They can appear white, brown, or charred, and may not be painful initially due to nerve damage. Third-degree burns require immediate medical attention and often result in significant scarring and possible loss of function. Third-degree burns are caused by prolonged, intense exposure to flames, heat, chemicals, or electricity.

Causes of Burns

While burns are often caused by exposure to heat or flame, they can also be caused by chemical substances or electricity.

Thermal burns are injuries caused by heat sources that raise the skin's temperature enough to cause tissue damage. The severity of a thermal burn depends on the temperature of the heat source, the duration of exposure, and the area of skin affected. Thermal burns can occur from the sun, direct contact with hot objects, scalding from hot liquids or steam, and flames.

Chemical burns occur when skin or tissues are exposed to corrosive substances such as acids, alkalis, or solvents, leading to tissue damage. These burns can vary in severity, from superficial irritation to deep tissue damage. This severity depends on the concentration of the chemical, the duration of exposure, and the substance's ability to penetrate the skin. Common sources include household cleaners, industrial chemicals, and battery acid.

Electrical burns arise when an electric current passes through the body, causing heat damage both at the entry and exit points, and potentially along the path of the current through tissues. These burns can result from direct contact with live wires, electrical outlets, or lightning strikes. The severity can range from superficial skin burns to deep tissue damage and may affect internal organs and the heart's rhythm.

First Aid for Minor Burns

Proper burn care is crucial to prevent infections, minimize scarring, reduce pain, promote healing, and prevent long-term complications and loss of function.

If you have a minor, first-degree burn, you probably don’t need to go to the doctor. But you do need to perform proper first aid at home. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Cool the burn: Run cool (not cold) tap water over the burn for 10 to 20 minutes or until the pain eases. Alternatively, apply a cool, wet compress if running water isn't available. Avoid using ice, as it can cause further skin damage.
  2. Clean the area: Gently clean the burn with lukewarm water and mild soap. Do not scrub the burn, as this can cause further irritation.
  3. Protect the burn: Apply a layer of aloe vera gel or a moisturizing lotion to soothe the area. These can provide relief from the pain and help keep the skin moist. Do not apply butter, oils, or other home remedies, as they can trap heat and increase the risk of infection.
  4. Cover the Burn: Cover the burn with a sterile, non-adhesive bandage or clean cloth. This can help protect the burn from friction and pressure, reducing the risk of infection.
  5. Pain Relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help reduce pain and inflammation. Always follow the dosage instructions on the package.

You should never use ice, butter, oil, or any other kitchen substance on your burn. If your burn has blisters, leave these blisters unpopped.

When to go to Urgent Care for Burns

An urgent care clinic is a great place to go for first and second-degree burns that are not life-threatening but may require more care than what can be provided at home.

  • First-degree burns. While most first-degree burns can be managed at home, you need to monitor your burns for signs of infection. Increased pain, redness, swelling, or pus are all signs of potential infection.
  • Second-degree burns. Make plans to go to an urgent care doctor as soon as possible. Before your visit, you can cool, clean, and cover your burn and take over-the-counter pain relievers, but do not apply ointments or creams. Improper use of ointments on second-degree burns can lead to trapped heat, dirt, and bacteria.

Your urgent care doctor will carefully clean and cool your burn and may apply topical medications to prevent infection and promote healing. Your doctor may also apply a sterile dressing to protect your burn while you heal. Instructions for home care, which may include prescription ointments or pain relief, will be provided. You may also need to return for a follow-up visit for more severe burns.

If you have a serious burn, call 911 or go directly to your nearest emergency room. Skip urgent care and go directly to the ER if you have:

  • A third-degree burn
  • A burn that is located on your face, hands, feet, buttocks, groin, or over a major joint
  • An extensive burn, covering an area larger than your palm
  • An electrical burn of any kind
  • Burns that are accompanied by other injuries or trauma

Not all burns are emergencies, but all burns need proper care. At MedHelp urgent care clinics in Birmingham, we can provide care for most minor skin injuries, including first and second-degree burns.

We're Here When You Need Us

Illnesses and injuries don't always happen at convenient times. That's why our Birmingham urgent care clinics are open seven days a week with extended hours on weekdays. So whether you need some dinnertime burn care or a Saturday strep test, we're here for you.