What Are Common Causes of Burns?
The first step in helping to protect kids from burns is to understand how common burns happen:
- Thermal burns: These burns raise the temperature of the skin and tissue underneath. Thermal burns happen from steam, hot bath water, tipped-over coffee cups, hot foods, cooking fluids, etc.
- Radiation burns: These happen from exposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays (a sunburn because skin isn't well-protected in the sun) or from radiation such as during an X-ray.
- Chemical burns: These happen from swallowing strong acids (like drain cleaner or button batteries) or spilling chemicals (like bleach) onto the skin or eyes.
- Electrical burns: These are from contact with electrical current and can happen from things like biting on electrical cords or sticking fingers or objects in electrical outlets, etc.
What Are the Types of Burns?
Knowing the type of burn a child has can help with first-aid measures. All burns should be treated quickly to lower the temperature of the burned area and reduce damage to the skin and tissue underneath (if the burn is severe).
First-Degree (Superficial) Burns
Superficial (shallow) burns are the mildest type of burns. They're limited to the top layer of skin:
- Signs and symptoms: These burns cause redness, pain, and minor swelling. The skin is dry without blisters.
- Healing time: Healing time is about 3–6 days; the superficial skin layer over the burn may peel off in 1 or 2 days.
Second-Degree (Partial Thickness) Burns
These burns are more serious and involve the top layer of skin and part of the layer below it.
- Signs and symptoms: The burned area is red and blistered, and can swell and be painful. The blisters sometimes break open and the area is wet looking with a bright pink to cherry red color.
- Healing time: Healing time varies depending on the severity of the burn. It can take up to 3 weeks or longer.
Full Thickness Burns
These burns (also called third-degree burns or fourth-degree burns) are the most serious type of burn. They involve all layers of the skin and the nerve endings there, and may go into underlying tissue.
- Signs and symptoms: The surface appears dry and can look waxy white, leathery, brown, or charred. There may be little or no pain or the area may feel numb at first because of nerve damage.
- Healing time: Healing time depends on the severity of the burn. Most need to be treated with skin grafts, in which healthy skin is taken from another part of the body and surgically placed over the burn wound to help the area heal.
What Should We Do for Burns?
Get medical help right away when:
- You think your child has any burn other than a superficial one.
- The burned area is large (2–3 inches wide), even if it seems like a minor burn. For any burn that appears to cover a large part of the body, call for medical help. Do not use wet compresses or ice because they can cause the child's body temperature to drop. Instead, cover the area with a clean, soft cloth or towel.
- The burn comes from a fire, an electrical wire, a socket, or chemicals.
- The burn is on the face, scalp, hands, genitals, or on skin over a joint.
- The burn looks infected (with swelling, pus, increasing redness, or red streaking of the skin near the wound).
For superficial burns:
- Remove the child from the heat source and take clothing off the burned area right away.
- Run cool (not cold) water over the burned area (if water isn't available, any cold, drinkable fluid can be used) or hold a clean, cold compress on the burn for 3–5 minutes (do not use ice, which can cause more damage to the injured skin).
- Do not apply butter, grease, powder, or any other "folk" remedies to the burn, as these can make the burn deeper and increase the risk of infection.
- Apply aloe gel or cream to the affected area. This may be done a few times during the day.
- Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain. Follow the label directions for how much to give and how often.
- Keep the affected area clean. You can protect it with a sterile gauze pad or bandage for the next 24 hours. Do not put adhesive bandages on very young kids, though, as these can be a choking hazard if they get loose.
For partial thickness burns and full thickness burns:
Call for emergency medical care. Then, follow these steps until help arrives:
- Keep the child lying down with the burned area raised.
- Follow the instructions for first-degree burns.
- Remove all jewelry and clothing from around the burn (in case there's any swelling after the injury), except for clothing that's stuck to the skin. If you have trouble removing clothing, you may need to cut it off or wait until medical help arrives.
- Do not break any blisters.
- Apply cool water over the area for at least 3–5 minutes, then cover the area with a clean dry cloth or sheet until help arrives.
For electrical and chemical burns:
- Make sure the child is not in contact with the electrical source before touching him or her, or you also may get shocked.
- For chemical burns, flush the area with lots of running water for 5 minutes or more. If the burned area is large, use a tub, shower, buckets of water, or a garden hose.
- Do not remove any of the child's clothing before you've begun flushing the burn with water. As you continue flushing the burn, you can then remove clothing from the burned area.
- If the burned area from a chemical is small, flush for another 10–20 minutes, apply a sterile gauze pad or bandage, and call your doctor.
- Chemical burns to the mouth or eyes need to be checked by a doctor right away after being thoroughly flushed with water.
Chemical burns and electrical burns might not always be visible, but can be serious because of possible damage to internal organs. Symptoms may vary, depending on the type and severity of the burn and what caused it.
If you think your child may have swallowed a chemical substance or an object that could be harmful (for instance, a button battery), first call poison control at (800) 222-1222. Then, call 911 for emergency medical help.
It helps to know what chemical product the child has swallowed or has been exposed to. You may need to take it with you to the hospital.
Keep the number for poison control, (800) 222-1222, in an easily accessible place, such as on the refrigerator.
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: August 2019