Does That Burn Need Medical Attention?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Each year, more than 450,000 children and adults in the U.S. and Canada get treatment for burn injuries. The majority of painful and often scaring burns are preventable.

More than 73% of these accidents happen at home, and cooking is the number one cause. Burns also stem from overexposure to the sun, radiation, certain chemicals, and electrical contact.

With a few changes and preventive measures, you and your family can avoid injuries from hot kitchen surfaces, grease fires, and smoke. When burn injuries happen, it’s important to know how to respond to minimize pain and scarring and avoid infection. Minor burns may be treatable at home with over-the-counter products and proper wound care. More severe burns require immediate medical care.

burnsHow to avoid kitchen fires and contact burns

  • Cook only when you’re alert and paying attention.
  • Supervise children at all times.
  • Don’t allow toys and other objects on the kitchen floor while cooking.
  • Keep the stove, oven, and exhaust fan clean to prevent grease buildup.
  • Don’t wear flowy sleeves when cooking.
  • Assume all pots and pans are hot.
  • Keep a pan lid and oven mitts nearby. You don’t want to dig through drawers when a fire starts.
  • Turn pot/pan handles toward the back of the stove to avoid knocking them over.
  • Use microwave-safe cookware that allows steam to escape in the microwave.
  • Microwaved food and drink containers can get extremely hot. Allow food to cool down a bit before touching it, use oven mitts, and tell children to do the same.
  • Use a pan lid/splashguard to prevent grease splatter.
  • Don’t leave the kitchen while you’re using the stove. Don’t leave the house when the oven is on. If you need to leave, turn them off.
  • Check cooking food regularly to ensure it’s not burning or catching fire.

How to respond to a kitchen fire

It’s a good idea to keep a foam fire extinguisher in or near your kitchen. Check it every six months to ensure that it’s still functional. There is usually a gauge that indicates the remaining pressure in the tank.

  • Do NOT toss water on it.
  • Cover the pan with a lid or cookie sheet until the pan is cool.
  • Don’t move the pot or carry it outside to avoid getting burned.
  • Turn off the stove, oven, or microwave.
  • Keep the oven or microwave door closed until it’s cool.
  • If the fire continues and you have a fire extinguisher on hand, use it with caution, aiming it away from you and anyone else in the house.
  • If the fire gets out of control, go outside and call 9-1-1. Don’t go back inside. Smoke inhalation is dangerous.

How to treat minor burns

First-degree burns are common and affect only the outer layer of the skin. A minor burn like this looks similar to a sunburn, with or without swelling. It may blister and be painful but is no larger than three inches in diameter. If not treated immediately and adequately, minor burns can scar.

  • If the first-degree burn is substantial or an infant or older adult gets burned, seek immediate medical attention at an urgent care center or emergency room. Otherwise, minor burns can be treated and cared for at home with the following wound-care tips.
  • Cool the burn under cool (not ice cold) running water. Then gently apply a cool, wet compress until the pain eases (about 10 minutes).
  • Quickly and gently remove any tight items or clothing from the burned area before the skin swells.
  • Don’t break fluid-filled blisters (which protect injured skin from infection). If a blister bursts, gently clean the area with room temperature water and mild soap, then apply an antibiotic ointment/cream (not hand sanitizer).
  • Once the burn is thoroughly cooled, apply petroleum jelly, aloe vera gel or lotion, calming moisturizer, or a burn relief ointment or spray.
  • Loosely wrap the burn with a sterile gauze bandage (not fluffy cotton) to keep it clean and avoid contact with other surfaces.
  • If the burn is causing minor pain, an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen (like Advil or Motrin), naproxen sodium (Aleve), or acetaminophen (Tylenol), can help.
  • Protect the affected area from sun exposure.

How to respond to significant burns

Second- and third-degree burns are more severe and should not be handled with at-home care alone. Major burns are deep and larger than three inches in diameter. These burns cause the skin to be dry and appear leathery or charred, possibly with patches of white, brown, or black.

  • Call 9-1-1 immediately.
  • While waiting for emergency help, ensure the burn victim is not in contact with the source of the burn (the fire, hot surface, or electrical source).
  • Look out for signs of shock, including fainting, pale complexion, or shallow breathing. Confirm that they are breathing. If not, administer CPR or breathing assistance, if you know how.
  • Remove any restrictive items like jewelry, belts, and tight clothing from the burned areas of the body.
  • Cover the burn with a cool, moist bandage or clean cloth if you have one nearby.
  • If possible, raise the wounded area above heart level.
  • Don’t submerge large severe burns in water.

After treatment at a clinic or hospital, follow their instructions for proper after-care to avoid infection and minimize scarring.


Written by Dana Kantrowitz, a contributor to UMiami Health News. Medically reviewed by E. Robert Schwartz, M.D., a family medicine physician at UHealth.


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