First Aid Refreshers, part 4: Minor Burns

January 31, 2012

First Aid, Frontier Medicine

treating minor burns with first aid

Thus far in the First Aid Refreshers series, we’ve covered fevers, wound care, and shock.  Those are important topics, but there is another one right up there with those- burns.

Our lives are pretty comfortable right now.  We have the convenience of electric heat, stoves/ovens, and so on.  If we are building a fire, it is probably only in a standard fireplace with glass doors or at least screens.  If our conveniences should disappear because we lose power for example, we’ll be doing a lot more atypical fire building.

You will need heat to cook, to boil questionable water for drinking, to keep warm at night, to heat water to wash in- the list goes on and on.  This will bring along with it more opportunities for mishaps and burns.  It will be critical to react quickly and treat the injuries appropriately.

For the sake of brevity, I will cover first and second degree burns in this posting and later address serious third degree burns and those including electricity or chemicals.

Mild Burns

1.  Minor (1st degree)

These burns are fairly mild.  They may turn the skin red, but no blisters form.

2.  Blisters (2nd degree)

These are caused by longer exposure or higher heat.  Blisters form shortly after receiving the burn.


There is some disagreement about how to treat burns and there are many products available for purchase that are labeled for treating burns.  Most types of advice fall into two categories:  apply product X to the burn or apply nothing.  I will present as many of them as I can with their sources when possible and let you decide how to proceed.

The very first step in helping a burn victim is to stop the burning.  While this may seem obvious in the case of a literal fire, it may be less so in the case of scalding water or other type of burn.  After moving the victim away from the heat source, remove any clothing that is holding that heat against the skin.

cold water for first aid to burnsA first aid instructor told me about a time when her grandson had fallen into a tub of scalding water with his clothes on.  His parents quickly removed the shirt and pants but forgot about the socks in their hurry.  Only his feet sustained any blisters.

Typically, for a first degree (mild) or second degree burn, if you immerse the area in cold water (or gently run cold water over it) it will take much of the heat and sting out.  Ten to fifteen minutes should give a lot of relief.  Do not put ice directly on the burn as this could cause a different kind of damage to the tissues.  OTC oral pain medication may help too.

Next, remove any remaining articles near the burn– watches, necklaces, belts, etc.  The skin will probably begin swelling soon.

Red Cross first aid courses will tell you not to apply anything else to the burn.  The Burn Institute concurs.  These are the reasons:

A.  the oil base of many ointments may act to hold in heat, worsening the burn

B.  topical medications may actually cause infection

C.  if a doctor needs to treat the burn, he will have to remove the ointment, causing the victim more pain

There are other theories, though.

WebMD, among others, says to keep the burn covered (with something clean and lint-free) so that it remains clean.  Remember in the case of blisters that they may stick causing pain when the dressing is removed.  In addition, WebMD recommends using cool cloths.

The Mayo Clinic site adds cautions about watching for infection and giving extra care to protect the burned area from the sun for the next year.  This means diligent sunscreen use at a minimum.

Medline Plus has a well-written page.  It also recommends a sterile dressing and reminds the caregiver to protect the burned area from pressure and friction.  In addition, it (among others) says that if a second degree burn is more than 2 or 3 inches in diameter OR if the burn occurs on hands, face, feet, groin, buttocks, or major joint, you should treat it as a serious (3rd degree) burn.  It advises making sure the victim has a current tetanus shot.

Many sites and books will say that after the initial heat of the burn is gone, that lotions or ointments may be applied.  These range from aloe vera gel (WebMD) to moisturizing lotion (Medline Plus).   In addition, there are lots of OTC products labeled for burns.  They include Solarcaine, Burn Jel, hydrocortisone cream (only for those over age 2) and Burn B Gone.  I have never used any of those personally, so I cannot comment on their effectiveness or safety.

Though it is a common home remedy for burns, every site and book I have seen says you should NOT apply butter to a burn.

If you have used or would endorse any of those products, please tell us your experience and the kind of burn you applied them to in the comment sections.

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10 Comments on “First Aid Refreshers, part 4: Minor Burns”

  1. kari Says:

    For small minor burns, we keep a small bag of flour in the freezer. It stops the burn quickly with no blisters. We have used it for a small grease burn and a burn from hot cools it very nice. The flour does not need to be in freezer to work, that just aids in a quicker cooling.


  2. Dennis Says:

    The best item I have ever used has been an aqueous (Water Based) Aloe gel. Aloe has been used for thousands of years to treat burns. Using a water based solution, (found in gallon jugs in many grocery or drug stores) does not coat the the burn area with a oil base making the changing of bandages easier and less painful. The Aloe helps to promote healing faster, and it acts as a natural antibiotic as well.
    If you get a “road rash” that contains asphalt and dirt, to clean, use petroleum jelly (like Vaseline), and lightly as possible, use a clean, smooth, soft cloth to gently rub the area. The Vaseline will liquefy and gently roll all of the trash out of the scraped area, causing the least amount of pain and tissue damage. After cleaning, cover with clean bandage or clean cloth.


    • Laura Says:

      Interesting idea for getting debris out of a wound, Dennis. Do you actually rinse it with soap and water before bandaging? I’d be a little concerned about trapping germs against the open skin otherwise.

      Aloe is great stuff. I just try to read the labels to be sure that the product really is mostly aloe. I’ve been annoyed to find that on many items labeled as “aloe,” they are mostly a chemical combination of things with a “touch of aloe” or just aloe scented. That seems to be most often the case with sunburn relief products. Natural remedies are proving themselves more and more often to be the way to go in my experience.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. Dave Summers Says:

    Very good blog post. I always mention that one of the most important reasons for first aid is to preserve Life, not only the casualty\’s life, but your own as well. Far too often only one person\’s life
    is in danger when the emergency services are called, but by the time they arrive there
    are more. If you put your life in danger, you can end up fighting for your OWN life
    instead of the casualty\’s.


    • Laura Says:

      Thanks for your encouragement, Dave.

      You are so right about keeping your own safety in mind when attempting to help another. In the next installment, I will give cautions about that- especially as they pertain to chemical and electrical burns.


  4. Elva Bloem Says:

    When treating burns, topical vitamins like topical vitamin-c and topical vitamin-E can really help a lot. ‘

    Our web site



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