Burns and scalds
Burns and scalds are damage to the skin caused by heat. A burn is caused by dry heat, for example, by an iron or fire. A scald is caused by something wet, such as hot water or steam. Burns may also be caused by chemicals and electricity.
Signs and symptoms
Burns/ scalds can be very painful and may cause:
- red or peeling skin
- white or charred skin
The amount of pain you feel isn't always related to how serious the burn is. A serious burn may be painless.
Treating burns and scalds
To treat a burn or a scald caused by heat, follow the first aid advice below:
- immediately get the person away from the heat source to stop the burning
- cool the burn with cool or lukewarm running water for 30 minutes – don't use ice, iced water, or any creams or greasy substances such as butter
- remove any clothing or jewellery that's near the burnt area of skin, including babies' nappies - but don't move anything that's stuck to the skin
- make sure the person keeps warm, by using a blanket, for example, but take care not to rub it against the burnt area
- cover the burn by placing a layer of cling film over it – a clean plastic bag could also be used for burns on your hand (do not use wet dressings or creams)
- use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen to treat any pain
If the face or eyes are burnt, sit up as much as possible, rather than lying down as this helps to reduce swelling.
If you think someone has had an electrical shock, you should approach them with care.
If the person has been injured by a low-voltage source (for example 220–240 volts, domestic electricity supply) safely switch off the power supply first, then it is safe to touch the person.
If you can’t switch off the low-voltage source, and the electricity appears to be causing harm, it may be possible to remove the person from the electrical source using a non-conductive material (such as a wooden stick or wooden chair). This can cause a risk to you if you are trying to help them, and should be a last resort.
Do not ever approach a person connected to a high-voltage source (1000 volts or more). Dial 999 for immediate medical help - if it is a high voltage source, make sure that you say this.
For chemical burns:
- wear protective gloves
- be careful not to contaminate and injure yourself with the chemical and wear protective clothing if necessary
- remove any affected clothing
- brush the chemical off the skin if it is in a dry form
- rinse the burn with cool running water for an hour to wash out the chemical
- if possible, work out the cause of the injury
- do not try to neutralize chemicals (to try to stop them from having an effect) as additional heat will be generated, that may increase damage to the skin
Call 999 for immediate medical help.
When to get medical attention
Depending on how serious a burn is, it may be possible to treat it at home. For minor burns, keep the burn clean and don't burst any blisters that form.
More serious burns need medical attention. You should go to an emergency department for:
- all chemical and electrical burns
- large or deep burns – any burn bigger than your hand
- burns that cause white or charred skin – any size
- burns that have caused blisters on the face, hands, arms, feet, legs or genitals
The size and depth of the burn will be assessed. The affected area will be cleaned before a dressing is applied. In severe cases, skin graft surgery may be recommended.
If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also get medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed and can include:
- a sore throat
- difficulty breathing
- facial burns
People at greater risk from the effects of burns should also get medical attention after a burn or scald. These include:
- children under 10 years of age
- adults over 49 years of age
- people with medical problems (for example cardiac, respiratory, or liver disease, or diabetes)
- people with problems with their immune system
- pregnant women
When to seek further medical advice
Whether your burn required medical attention or not, you should seek medical advice if:
- the wound becomes painful or smelly
- you develop a high temperature of 38C (100.4F) or higher
- the dressing becomes soaked with fluid leaking from the wound
- the wound hasn't healed after two weeks
Recovering from burns and scalds
How long it takes to recover from a burn or scald depends on how serious it is and how it's treated.
If the wound becomes infected, you should get further medical attention.
Keeping children safe from burns and scalds
Below are some things you can do to help reduce the risk of your child having a serious accident at home. These include:
- keeping your children away from hazardous heat sources in the kitchen, for example, warm oven fronts, and ensuring pot handles cannot be reached
- testing the temperature of bath water using your elbow before you put your baby or toddler in the bath
- keeping matches, lighters and lit candles out of young children's sight and reach
- keeping hot drinks well away from young children
If you need advice about a burn or scald, you can:
More useful links
- How to use your health services
- Minor injuries units
- Keeping children safe from burns and scalds
- Chemical safety in the home
- Keeping kids safe – ROSPA website
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
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