First Aid For Burns 101

Feb 24, 2013 by

Medical training is not something most folks have in abundance.  However, first aid for burns is something you can master and certainly comes in handy when times get tough.  Remember, simple things like cooking will become more dangerous when you have to make your own fire.  Dr. Estra, of Dan’s Depot, provides some excellent basics for you around treating burns.  

Burns are commonly occurring injuries, which may range from serious, life threatening, to fatal. In the United States alone, it is estimated that around 500,000 burn injuries of varying severity occur yearly, this does not even include burns, which are not reported to health care professionals. Burns occur through several possible mechanisms. These would be through:

  • Heat
  • Chemicals
  • Electricity
  • Light
  • Friction
  • Radiation

Burns also occur with varying degrees of severity depending on the depth of the tissue involved. These would include:

  • 1st degree burns – Burns involving the epidermis or top most layer of the skin. A common example would be a sunburn.

first aid for burns

  • 2nd degree burns – Burns involving the epidermis and the underlying dermis. They are often painful, reddish, and commonly cause blistering on the skin. They are the most common burns sustained, and due to the blistering it causes, it is also highly prone to infection. 2nd degree burns are also known as “partial thickness burns”.
  • 3rd degree burns – Burns involving the epidermis, and beyond the dermis. It is also known as a “full thickness burn”. 3rd degree burns present with a charred and burnt skin. 3rd degree burns also involve much of the nerve endings, which make this kind of burn painless. However, pain may be cause by the surviving nerve endings immediately surrounding the burn. These type of burns frequently lead to contractures as they heal, scarring, and adhesions, which often require surgical repair.
  • 4th degree burn – These are severe burns that extend up to the muscle and even as deep as the bone. Again, since the main nerve endings are burned, they are often painless. They are highly predisposed to infection and gangrene. Most 4th degree burns tend to be amputated as well.

First Aid Management of Burns

Before commencing to apply first aid on the burn, ensure that the vital ABC’s (airway, breathing, circulation) of the patient is secure. Once this is secure, you can now pay attention to applying first aid to the burn. A key to stopping the aggravation of the burn is to ensure early cooling. Properly done, this can save as much tissue and nerves as possible, as well as relieve the pain.

  • Cooling the affected area – Hold the affected area under cool running water. Take note, that the water must be cool and not cold. Applying anything cold to the burned area will aggravate the damage to tissues. Do this for 10 to 20 minutes. You can also submerge the burn in cool water or apply cold compress wrapped in cloth. Cooling the affected area will help minimize the swelling and prevent further extension of the burn injury.
  • Apply burn ointment – After rinsing the burn area in cold water, you can apply an antiseptic burn ointment such as silver sulfadiazine to prevent infection.
  • Dress the burned area with sterile gauze – Dress the burn area with sterile gauze. Avoid using material with lint that may get into the wound and cause infection and poor healing. When dressing the wound, remember to apply the gauze or bandage loosely to avoid putting pressure on the wound.
  • Take pain relievers – Give over-the-counter pain relievers to the patient to minimize or relieve the pain. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen, naproxene, or acetaminophen are a relatively safe choice. Make sure to take these pain relievers on a full stomach to avoid and stomach pains. Try to avoid giving aspirin to young children as this may cause an illness called Reye’s syndrome, which can be fatal. Give young children acetaminophen instead.

First Aid For Burns


Further Assessment and Treatment

Most minor burns that affect only a small area usually heal spontaneously without further treatment, aside from daily bandaging with sterile gauze soaked in sterile water or sterile saline solution. It is also important to keep the burn area clean at all times and to avoid putting pressure on it. However, despite being a minor burn, always watch out for any signs of infection such as pus, swelling, pain that is not relieved, or redness. Any sign of infection should be brought immediately to a qualified healthcare provider. Do not apply butter or toothpaste to any type of burn! You may apply aloe vera or doctor approved burn creams. Burns affecting a large area and depth should be brought to the hospital as they carry a large risk of infection and dehydration.

Dr. Estra contributes to the medical part of the blog Dan’s is an outdoor survival site and much more.


  1. vikki

    If a person was out camping next to a cold stream and that was the only cooling source, would it be better to use it for cooling or not?

    • That is a tough one. You certainly don’t want to shock the area with cold water. You would be better served using more tepid water to cool the skin. The instant cold will likely do more harm than good.

      • I would never use water from a stream to put on a burn or any other wound because of what might be living in the water. Sterile water would not include stream water.

        • Good point. I took Vikki’s question as nothing else was available. But I guess you would have to make a judgement call on how clean the water looks and how much the burn is bothering you. Perhaps cooling a rag or towel and then dabbing it would be a best less risky.

  2. Having seen a fair amount of burns I would go for the cold water

  3. My only concern with running stream water would be infection, but depending on the degree of the burn, that may or may not be an issue. Clearly cooling the burn is important, but it may be better to put the water into some sort of container or baggie and then use that as a cooling pack rather than immersing the open burn in water that could be laced with bacteria or worse. That could also mitigate the issue of using too-cold water as the container should absorb some of that.


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