How to Heal a Minor Burn at Home, According to Two Medical Experts
Whether it happens when you grab a hot pan or pour yourself a cup of tea, burns are some of the most common injuries that occur at home. "Typically in the household, we see a lot of patients get scald burns while they're cooking," says Holly Macklay, burn nurse practitioner at William Randolph Hearst Burn Center. "We also see a lot of brief contact burns when someone accidentally grabs a hot pan or pot." How you treat your burn typically depends on its severity. A first degree burn is the least severe and affects the outer layer of the skin, while second degree burns affect deeper layers and can cause blisters. Third and fourth degree burns are the worst types, and require medical attention; they go through all layers of the skin and can even reach joints and bones. Most minor burns, however, can be treated at home with delicate and attentive care—and they often heal within a couple of weeks. Ahead, we consulted two experts, who explained how to heal this wound type at home.
How to Assess the Severity of Your Burn
First things first: After a burn happens, you need to determine what type you have, which will dictate whether immediate medical attention is necessary. "A burn is assessed by the depth of damage," explains Dr. Diane Madfes, MD, FAAD, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She notes that first degree burns typically cause redness and mild tenderness at the affected area. "Problems arise with burns as heat is transmitted underneath the skin," Dr. Madfes explains, noting that second degree burns, which reach the skin's dermis, might cause wound infection and heal slowly. "If you see any break in the skin or blistering seek medical attention. If a burn is over a joint you want to make sure there isn't any long term damage," Dr. Madfes notes.
According to Macklay, blistering doesn't always occur until the next day, as the epidermis moves away from the dermis, so it's important to continue monitoring the burn for this symptom following injury. You should also make sure you can still move the area that has been burned. "We worry about limited mobility and potential loss of function as a burn goes through wound healing stages," Dr. Madfes explains.
How to Care for a Minor Burn
If you've assessed the wound and determined you don't need immediate medical attention—there is no breakage or blistering, and you haven't suffered a third or fourth degree iteration—remove any jewelry or constricting garments and run the area under cold water. You can also submerge the wound in an ice bath for 10 to 15 minutes, but you "don't want to apply ice directly to the skin, as this can damage the top layer," Dr. Madfes says. After applying cold water to the area, Macklay says to pat it dry and keep it clean. She also notes that you should avoid applying hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, or any type of skin cleanser to the wound. "You don't want to put harsh antiseptics on the burn," she says.
When caring for a simple first or second degree burn, Macklay recommends that patients clean the area with gentle soap and water every day, pat the area dry, then apply an ointment like bacitracin or Vaseline if the wound is open and draining. Then, place a non-adherent gauze over the area and secure it in place with a rolled bandage. "We don't like a lot of tape on peoples' skin, because when you rip tape off and on every day, it tears up skin around the wound," Macklay notes. Change the dressings once or twice a day, making sure to clean off the gooey ointment during every re-dress. If you're experiencing pain, Macklay recommends taking over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen about 20 minutes before you change the dressing; that way, the drugs are already working by the time you're manipulating the area. Lastly, avoid any extensive movement in the first few days as the injury heals.
After-Care Tips for a Minor Burn
If you've been caring for your burn for about a week or two and want to stop wearing a bandage, Macklay says you can do so when the wound is dry and no longer hurts when you touch it. Some care is still necessary, even after these protectants come off. "The area needs to stay hydrated for continued optimal epidermal healing," Dr. Madfes says. Additionally, the area will still be discolored, even if it has healed and no longer hurts. "With a second degree burn, color doesn't come back for some patients for up to a couple of months, because those little color cells in the top layer of our skin are the last ones to regenerate," Macklay explains. For this reason, she says to moisturize with a hypoallergenic lotion and protect the area from direct sunlight or heat by using a high level of sunscreen—stick to 50 SPF or higher. If the burn is slow to heal, or it becomes more painful, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.