Burn Treatment: Go In or Stay Home?


Graphic of burn degreesBurns hurt. Besides damaging the skin, burns sometimes cause dangerous complications such as infections. How you treat your burn impacts the healing process—for better or worse.

When burns happen, many people reach for home remedies or wait it out. If it’s severe enough, they may go to the walk-in clinic or ER. Since there are different types of burns and different causes, you may be wondering whether to treat your burns or seek medical attention.

Here’s what you need to know about burns.

Know Your Burns

Not all burns are created equal. Different degrees of burns have distinct levels of severity, ranging from first degree (superficial injuries) to third-degree burns (deep, serious damage). A third-degree burn always needs professional treatment—you’ll need to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

The others vary, so you’ll need to evaluate your injury carefully:

First-Degree—This is superficial skin damage with minimal risk. Generally, these can be self-treated. If a first-degree burn is bigger than the palm of the victim’s hand, though, it’s time to see a doctor. A fever may be another reason to go in—it could be an infection.

Your skin probably looks red, feels warm and hurts. It may also be swollen and have small blisters. Here’s how to treat it safely:

  • First, stop the burning process. If it’s a hot surface, sun exposure, fire, etc., quickly and safely get away from it!
  • Place burned area under cool, running water if possible or use cool, wet washcloths.
  • Remove any clothing from the burn area and any jewelry such as rings or bracelets before your skin becomes swollen.
  • Cover it with a loose bandage.
  • If needed, take some over-the-counter pain medicine. Stay hydrated.

Second-Degree—These are sometimes treatable at home, but they’re more serious than first-degree burns. The next layer of skin, the dermis, is burned and blisters are forming. It’s very red and very painful. Small second-degree burns can be treated the same way you’d manage first-degree burns.

Should I see a doctor for my second-degree burn?

  • Bigger than three inches? See a doctor right away. This may be more serious.
  • In a sensitive area of the body? Or an area that’s functional, bends or moves such as a hand, ear, face, over your joints, etc.? You should probably see a doctor.

Third-Degree—This isn’t minor enough for home treatment. Visit the ER or get emergency medical help right away.

Feeling Burned? Here’s How to Heal

“Typically, minor burns begin healing quickly and may be healed within a few days,” states Kara Mrnak, RN and Certified Wound Care Nurse at Glacial Ridge Health System. “Until then, minimize your suffering by managing the pain, swelling, and itching. Keep your wound clean and allow the area to breathe. Resist the urge to scratch your skin—as it heals, it might be itchy but scratching it can lead to infection and skin damage.”

Healing Tips:

  • Avoid Infections—While your skin’s healing, keep in mind that bacteria love broken skin and you need to reduce your risk of infection. Your skin forms a protective barrier and any injury provides an opportunity for bacterial infections to go crazy. Applying a small amount of antibiotic ointment, keeping your skin clean and changing bandages daily may help protect against infection. Try not to touch the burn and be sure to wash your hands before and after applying bandages and lotions.
  • Be Skeptical of Home Remedies—Some home remedies for burns only make them worse. Resist the temptation to slather your skin with butter or mustard—your skin will thank you.
  • Use Aloe Vera Lotion on Minor Burns—Small, minor burns may benefit from aloe—it’ll help keep it from drying out and may soothe your skin.
  • Watch for Sickness—If you have a fever you can’t control (or it gets worse), you feel ill or suspect something’s wrong, it’s not a bad idea to see a doctor. Trust your instincts and don’t delay medical attention if you need it.

If you have any questions or concerns about your burn injury, Glacial Ridge Hospital has burn specialists, a certified wound care nurse, and is part of a regional burn center network. As always, if you’re experiencing an emergency be sure to call 911.

Share Your Thoughts