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Burns

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Aug 13, 2022.

Overview

Burns are tissue damage that results from heat, overexposure to the sun or other radiation, or chemical or electrical contact. Burns can be minor medical problems or life-threatening emergencies.

The treatment of burns depends on the location and severity of the damage. Sunburns and small scalds can usually be treated at home. Deep or widespread burns need immediate medical attention. Some people need treatment at specialized burn centers and monthslong follow-up care.

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Second-degree burn

A second-degree burn, which often looks wet or moist, affects the first and second layers of skin (epidermis and dermis). Blisters may develop and pain can be severe.

Symptoms

Burn symptoms vary depending on how deep the skin damage is. It can take a day or two for the signs and symptoms of a severe burn to develop.

When to see a doctor

Seek emergency medical assistance for:

Take first-aid measures while waiting for emergency assistance.

Call your doctor if you experience:

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Skin anatomy

Your skin has three layers that house your sweat and oil glands, hair follicles, melanocytes, and blood vessels.

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Third-degree burn

Third-degree burns extend into the fat layer that lies beneath the dermis. The skin may appear stiff, waxy white, leathery or tan. These types of burns usually require skin grafts for wound closure.

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Radiation burn

Radiation burns can be caused by X-rays or radiation therapy to treat cancer.

Causes

Burns are caused by:

Complications

Complications of deep or widespread burns can include:

Prevention

To reduce the risk of common household burns:

Also be alert to burn risks outside the home, especially if you are in places with open flames, chemicals or superheated materials.

Diagnosis

If you go to a doctor for burn treatment, he or she will assess the severity of your burn by examining your skin. He or she may recommend that you be transferred to a burn center if your burn covers more than 10 percent of your total body surface area, is very deep, is on the face, feet or groin, or meets other criteria established by the American Burn Association.

Your doctor will check for other injuries and might order lab tests, X-rays or other diagnostic procedures.

Treatment

Most minor burns can be treated at home. They usually heal within a couple of weeks.

For serious burns, after appropriate first aid and wound assessment, your treatment may involve medications, wound dressings, therapy and surgery. The goals of treatment are to control pain, remove dead tissue, prevent infection, reduce scarring risk and regain function.

People with severe burns may require treatment at specialized burn centers. They may need skin grafts to cover large wounds. And they may need emotional support and months of follow-up care, such as physical therapy.

Medical treatment

After you have received first aid for a major burn, your medical care may include medications and products that are intended to encourage healing.

Physical and occupational therapy

If the burned area is large, especially if it covers any joints, you may need physical therapy exercises. These can help stretch the skin so that the joints can remain flexible. Other types of exercises can improve muscle strength and coordination. And occupational therapy may help if you have difficulty doing your normal daily activities.

Surgical and other procedures

You may need one or more of the following procedures:

Lifestyle and home remedies

To treat minor burns, follow these steps:

Whether your burn was minor or serious, use sunscreen and moisturizer regularly once the wound is healed.

Coping and support

Coping with a serious burn injury can be a challenge, especially if it covers large areas of your body or is in places readily seen by other people, such as your face or hands. Potential scarring, reduced mobility and possible surgeries add to the burden.

Consider joining a support group of other people who have had serious burns and know what you're going through. You may find comfort in sharing your experience and struggles and meeting people who face similar challenges. Ask your doctor for information on support groups in your area or online.

Preparing for an appointment

Seek emergency medical care for burns that are deep or involve your hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks, a major joint or a large area of the body. Your emergency room physician may recommend examination by a skin specialist (dermatologist), burn specialist, surgeon or other specialist.

For other burns, you may need an appointment with your family doctor. The information below can help you prepare.

List questions you want to ask your doctor, such as:

What to expect from your doctor

Examples of questions your doctor may ask, include:

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