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Burns and scalds are damage to the skin caused by heat. Both are treated in the same way.
A burn is caused by dry heat, from an iron or fire for example. A scald is caused by something wet, such as hot water or steam.
Burns can be very painful and can cause blisters and charred, black or red skin.
Read more information about the symptoms of burns and scalds, including the different types of burn.
To treat a burn, follow the first aid advice below:
Read more about treating burns and scalds.
The British Red Cross website has a video about first aid for burns.
Depending on how serious a burn is, it may be possible to treat it at home. For minor burns, keep the burn clean and do not burst any blisters that form.
More serious burns will require professional medical attention. You should go to a hospital A&E department for:
If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also seek medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed and can include coughing, a sore throat, difficulty breathing or facial burns.
People who are at greater risk from the effects of burns, such as children under five years old and pregnant women, should also get medical attention after a burn or scald.
The size and depth of the burn will be assessed and the affected area cleaned before a dressing is applied. You should also be given instructions on changing your dressing.
Read more information about recovering from burns and scalds.
The symptoms of a burn or scald will vary depending on how serious it is. Some minor burns can be very painful, while some major burns may not hurt at all.
Symptoms of a burn may include:
The amount of pain you feel is not always related to how serious the burn is.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ. It has many functions, including acting as a barrier between you and the environment and regulating your temperature. Your skin is made up of three layers:
Burns are assessed by how seriously your skin is damaged. There are four main types of burn:
These are described in more detail below.
Superficial epidermal burns are where the epidermis is damaged. Your skin will be red, slightly swollen and painful but not blistered.
Superficial dermal burns are where the epidermis and part of the dermis are damaged. Your skin will be pale pink, painful and there may be small blisters.
Deep dermal or partial thickness burns are where the epidermis and the dermis are damaged. This type of burn makes your skin turn red and blotchy. Your skin may also be dry or moist, become swollen and blistered, and it may be very painful or painless.
Full thickness burns are where all three layers of skin (the epidermis, dermis and subcutis) are damaged. In this type of burn, the skin is often burnt away and the tissue underneath may appear pale or blackened. The remaining skin will be dry and white, brown or black with no blisters. The texture of the skin may also be leathery or waxy.
Appropriate first aid must be used to treat any burns or scalds as soon as possible. This will limit the amount of damage to your skin.
You may need to apply the following first aid techniques to yourself or to another person who has been burnt.
Follow the first aid advice below to treat burns and scalds:
Once you have taken these steps, you will need to decide whether further medical treatment is necessary. Go to a hospital for:
Also get medical help straight away if the person with the burn:
If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also seek medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed and can include coughing, a sore throat, difficulty breathing, singed nasal hair or facial burns.
Read more about recovering from burns and scalds for information on how serious burns are treated.
Electrical burns may not look serious, but they can be very damaging. Someone who has an electrical burn should seek immediate medical attention at an A&E department.
If the person has been injured by a low-voltage source (up to 220–240 volts) such as a domestic electricity supply, safely switch off the power supply or remove the person from the electrical source using a non-conductive material. This is a material that does not conduct electricity, such as a wooden stick or a wooden chair.
Do not approach a person who is connected to a high-voltage source (1,000 volts or more).
Chemical burns can be very damaging and require immediate medical attention at an A&E department.
If possible, find out what chemical caused the burn and tell the healthcare professionals at A&E.
If you are helping someone else, wear appropriate protective clothing, then:
In cases of sunburn, follow the advice below:
If a person with heat exhaustion is taken quickly to a cool place, given water to drink and has their clothing loosened, they should start to feel better within half an hour. If they don’t, they could develop heatstroke. This is a medical emergency and you’ll need to call for an ambulance.
Read more about what to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Read more information about the complications of burns and scalds.
How long it takes to recover from a burn or scald depends on how serious it is and how it is treated. If the wound becomes infected, seek further medical attention.
If your burn or scald is mild and treated at home, it should heal without the need for further treatment. Read more about how to treat burns and scalds.
Keep the burn clean and do not apply any creams or greasy substances. Do not burst any blisters because this can lead to infection.
If you have a burn or scald that requires medical treatment, it will be assessed to determine the level of care required. If the burn is severe, you may be referred to a specialist.
The healthcare professional treating you will:
Depending on how the burn happened, you may be advised to have an injection to prevent tetanus (a condition caused by bacteria entering a wound). For example, a tetanus injection may be recommended if there is a chance that soil has got into the wound.
Your dressing will be checked after 24 hours to make sure there are no signs of infection. It will be changed after 48 hours, and then every three to five days until it is completely healed.
Seek further medical attention if:
Minor burns will normally heal in around 14 days, leaving minimal scarring.
During the first two years after your burn, you should not expose the damaged skin to direct sunlight as this may cause it to blister. It is especially sensitive during the first year after the injury. This also applies to a new area of skin after a skin graft.
It is important to keep the area covered with cotton clothing. If the burn or scald is on your face, wear a peaked cap or wide-brimmed hat when you're out in the sun. Total sun block, for example one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50, should be used on all affected areas.
The area can be exposed to sunshine again around three years after the injury, but it is still very important to apply a high-factor suncream (SPF 25 or above) and stay out of the midday sun.
Complications from burns and scalds can include:
After a serious injury, it is possible to go into shock. Shock is a life-threatening condition that occurs when there is an insufficient supply of oxygen to the body. It's possible to go into shock after a serious burn.
Signs and symptoms of shock include:
Dial 999 and ask for an ambulance if you think that someone who has been seriously injured is going into shock.
While you wait for the ambulance:
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are two heat-related health conditions that happen when the temperature inside your body rises to 37-40C (98.6-104F) or above.
Both heat exhaustion and heatstroke can be very serious. They are often caused by being exposed to too much sunlight or heat. Similarly, if someone is sunburnt, they may be at risk of developing heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke include:
If a person with heat exhaustion is taken quickly to a cool place, given water to drink and has their clothing loosened, they should start to feel better within half an hour. If they don’t, they could develop heatstroke. This is a medical emergency and you’ll need to call 999 for an ambulance.
Read more about what to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Wounds can become infected if bacteria get into them. If your burn or scald has a blister that has burst, it may become infected if it is not kept clean. Seek medical attention for any burn that causes a blister.
Your wound may be infected if:
Seek immediate medical attention if you think your burn has become infected. An infection can usually be treated with antibiotics and painkilling medication, if necessary.
In rare cases, an infected burn can cause blood poisoning (sepsis) or toxic shock syndrome (TSS). These are serious conditions that can be fatal if not treated. Signs of sepsis and toxic shock syndrome include a high temperature, dizziness and vomiting.
A scar is a patch or line of tissue that remains after a wound has healed. Most minor burns only leave minimal scarring. You can try to reduce the risk of scarring after the wound has healed by:
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.