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Adult Symptoms > Skin - Localized Symptoms > Burns


  • A burn is a heat (thermal), chemical or electrical injury to the skin.

General Information

  • Thermal burns are skin injuries caused by heat. Common examples are burns from hot water or hot drinks. Other common causes of thermal burns include hot ovens, stoves, electric or kerosene space heaters, exhaust pipes, hot grease, hair-curling irons, and clothes irons.
  • Chemical burns result from lye, acids, or other tissue-damaging chemicals splashed on the skin. If the chemical is washed off immediately, most of these accidents will cause only first-degree burns.

Degrees of Burn Severity

  • 1st Degree (superficial burns): Reddened skin without blisters (usually does not need to be seen).
  • 2nd Degree (partial thickness burns): Reddened skin with blisters (heals from bottom up, takes 2 to 3 weeks).
    - - Small intact blisters (narrower then 2 inch or 5 cm) can usually be left alone; initial debridement is not needed. An intact blister serves as a physiologic dressing, decreases the risk of infection, and reduces pain. However, most blisters over 1 inch (2.5 cm) will go on to rupture.
    - - Large intact blisters (wider than 2 inch or 5 cm) almost always rupture within a couple days of the burn. They should be debrided (remove dead blister skin). Generally, this is best done by a physician or other health care provider.
    - - All ruptured blisters need debridement (removal) of the dead skin. This can this can be done by you, a physician, or other health care provider. Most ruptured blisters are empty of fluid. A blister with a small opening and slow fluid leak can be recognized by the appearance of wrinkled skin.
  • 3rd Degree (full thickness burns): deep burns with white or charred skin. The area also loses sensation to pain and touch (i.e., numb). Usually needs a skin graft to prevent bad scarring if it is larger than a quarter (1 inch or 2.5 cm) in size.

See More Appropriate Topic (instead of this one) If

FIRST AID Advice for Thermal Burns:

  • Immediately (don't take time to remove clothing) put the burned part in cold tap water or pour cold water over it for 10 minutes.
  • For burns on the face, apply a cold wet washcloth. (Reason: lessens the depth of the burn and relieves pain)

FIRST AID Advice for Smoke Inhalation, Chemical Fume Inhalation, or Carbon Monoxide Exposure:

Immediately move to fresh air...

  • Go outdoors (best)
  • Or move to an open door / window (in extreme weather conditions)

FIRST AID Advice for Chemical Burns

  • Immediately remove any contaminated clothing.
  • Then flush the chemical off the skin with warm water for 10 minutes. For large areas, use a shower.


Call 911 Now (you may need an ambulance) If

  • Difficulty breathing after exposure to fire, smoke, or fumes
  • Difficulty breathing with burn to the face
  • Burn area larger than 10 palms of hand, with blisters (i.e., large second or third degree burn)
  • Note: For all above thermal and chemical burns, see First Aid

Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If

  • You think you have a serious burn
  • Burn area larger than 4 palms of hand
  • Blister (intact or ruptured) and larger than 2 inches (5 cm)
  • Blister (intact or ruptured) on the hand and larger than 1 inch (2.5 cm)
  • Blisters (intact or ruptured) on the face, neck, or genitals
  • Burn completely circles an arm or leg
  • Caused by very hot substance and center of burn is white (or charred)
  • Caused by an electrical current
  • Caused by explosion or gun powder
  • Caused by acid or alkali (lye)
  • Caused by a chemical on skin and there is a blister
  • Note: For all above thermal and chemical burns, see First Aid
  • Hoarseness or cough after exposure to fire and smoke
  • Headache or nausea after exposure to fire and smoke
  • Burn looks infected

Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If

  • You think you need to be seen

Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If

  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Minor burn of foot or lower leg and you have diabetes
  • Minor burn and last tetanus shot over 10 years ago

Self Care at Home If

  • Minor thermal or chemical burn and you don't think you need to be seen
  • Questions about burning sensation from hot peppers


1st Degree Burns or Small Blisters

  1. Reassurance: A mild thermal or chemical burn can be treated at home.
  2. Cleansing: Wash the area gently with an antibacterial liquid soap and water once a day.
  3. Ruptured (Broken or Open) Blisters:
    • You should remove the dead blister skin for any ruptured blisters.
    • Method 1: The easiest way to do this is gently wipe away the dead skin with
      some wet gauze or a wet washcloth.
    • Method 2: If that fails, trim off the dead skin with a fine scissors.
  4. Antibiotic Ointment for Ruptured Blisters:
    • Apply an antibiotic ointment (e.g., OTC bacitracin) directly to a Band-Aid or dressing (Reason: prevent unnecessary pain of applying it directly to burn).
    • Then apply the Band-Aid or dressing over the burn.
    • Change the dressing every other day. Use warm water and 1 or 2 wipes with a wet washcloth to remove any surface debris.
    • Be gentle with burns.
  5. Intact (Closed) Blisters:
    • First 7 Days After a Burn: Leave intact blisters alone.
    • After 7 Days: You can gently remove the blisters. The easiest way to do this is gently wipe away the dead skin with some wet gauze or a wet washcloth.
  6. Tetanus Shot: If your last tetanus shot was more than 10 years ago, you need a booster. Call your doctor during regular office hours (within the next 3 days).
  7. Expected Course:
    • Burns usually hurt for 2-3 days.
    • First Degree Burns: Usually peel like a sunburn in about a week. The skin should look nearly normal after 2 weeks.
    • Second Degree Burns: Blisters usually rupture within 7 days. Second degree burns take 14-21 days to heal (longer than first degree burns). Sometimes the skin looks a little darker or lighter than before after it has healed.
    • Scarring: Fortunately, first- and second-degree burns don't leave scars.
  8. Pain Medicines:
    • For pain relief, take acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen.
    Acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol):
    • Take 650 mg by mouth every 4-6 hours. Each Regular Strength Tylenol pill has 325 mg of acetaminophen.
    • Another choice is to take 1,000 mg every 8 hours. Each Extra Strength Tylenol pill has 500 mg of acetaminophen.
    • The most you should take each day is 3,000 mg.
    Ibuprofen (e.g., Motrin, Advil):
    • Take 400 mg by mouth every 6 hours.
    • Another choice is to take 600 mg by mouth every 8 hours.
    • Use the lowest amount that makes your pain feel better.
    Naproxen (e.g., Aleve):
    • Take 250-500 mg by mouth every 12 hours.
    • Use the lowest amount that makes your pain feel better.
    Extra Notes:
    • Acetaminophen is thought to be safer than ibuprofen or naproxen in people over 65 years old. Acetaminophen is in many OTC and prescription medicines. It might be in more than one medicine that you are taking. You need to be careful and not take an overdose. An acetaminophen overdose can hurt the liver.
    • Caution: Do not take acetaminophen if you have liver disease.
    • Caution: Do not take ibuprofen or naproxen if you have stomach problems, kidney disease, are pregnant, or have been told by your doctor to avoid this type of medicine. Do not take ibuprofen or naproxen for more than 7 days without consulting your doctor.
    • Before taking any medicine, read all the instructions on the package
  9. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe pain persists more than 2 hours after taking pain medicine.
    • Burn starts to look infected (pus, red streaks, increased tenderness)
    • You become worse

Mouth or Lip Pain from Hot Food or Drink

  1. Reassurance:
    • Minor burns of the mouth from hot food usually are painful for 2 days.
    • They heal quickly because the lining of the mouth heals twice as fast as the skin.
  2. Local Ice:
    • Put a piece of ice in the mouth immediately for 10 minutes (Reason: reduce swelling and pain).
    • Rinse the mouth with ice water every hour for 4 hours.
  3. Expected Course:
    • The pain usually resolves after 2 days.
    • Second degree burns can cause some blisters that quickly turn into shallow ulcers. These take 3 or 4 days to heal. They normally have a white surface.
  4. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Difficulty with swallowing occurs
    • Difficulty with breathing occurs
    • Pain becomes severe
    • You become worse.

Preventing Tetanus

  1. Tetanus Shot: If your last tetanus shot was more than 10 years ago, you need a booster. Call your doctor during regular office hours (within the next 3 days).

Burning Sensation from Hot Peppers

  1. General Information:
    • Handling Hot Peppers: Handling certain types of chili peppers can cause skin irritation and burning pain. This usually resolves without any skin damage. The burning pain should resolve over 1 hour.
    • Biting a Hot Pepper: Biting a hot pepper causes a painful burning sensation of the involved skin or mucous membranes. The discomfort usually last 10-20 minutes. The skin will not blister or be damaged in any way.
  2. Treatment for Skin Pain from Handling Hot Peppers:
    • WASH the skin with soap and warm water, to remove the pepper oils.
    • COVER the painful skin area with vegetable oil (for hands/fingers soak in vegetable oil) for 1 hour. The vegetable oil absorbs the pepper oils and will slowly reduce the pain. If vegetable oil is not available, you can try using milk or cream (dairy products contain a substance that absorbs the pepper oil). Dairy products that are "fat-free" will not work.
  3. Treatment for Mouth Pain from Handling Hot Peppers:
    • RINSE your mouth several times with milk or cream.
    • Dairy products contain a substance that absorbs the pepper oil.
  4. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Pain persists more than 1 hour
    • Blisters appear
    • You become worse.


And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 11/18/2011

Last Revised: 11/19/2011

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Symptom Checker

Copyright 2000-2012. Self Care Decisions LLC; LMS, Inc.

Additional Resources:

 How to use the Adult Health Topics pages
 When to call the doctor
 Reviewers of Clinical Content

Disclaimer: The information contained in these topics is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, it is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider before starting any new treatment or discontinuing an existing treatment. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Nothing contained in these topics is intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment.

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