How To Treat a Burn at Home

Understanding the difference between burn types will reduce scarring and speed healing.

You're transferring that hot kettle of boiling water to your tea mug, and bam! The scorching water spills on your arm. Suddenly, you're in a lot of pain, and you start to notice redness and swelling on your skin—the telltale signs of a burn.

The scary part of getting a burn—which most often happens at home or work—is that you risk permanent scarring, infection, and other consequences. But figuring out fast which degree the burn is and then knowing how to treat it can minimize damage.

While severe burns need urgent medical care, you can treat less severe burns at home. Here's how to know what type of burn you're dealing with, what to do immediately to reduce damage, the recovery time you can expect, and the home remedies that can speed healing.

Types of Burns

"Burns are classified by degrees of how deeply they have injured the skin," explained Sonia Batra, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Batra Dermatology in Santa Monica, Calif. 

You can usually differentiate a burn by looking at your skin's reaction after the burn occurs, noted Dr. Batra. Burns are separated into three categories: First-degree, second-degree, and third-degree.

First-Degree Burns

A first-degree burn is a superficial burn. First-degree burns cause the skin to turn red and swell slightly but do not eventually blister.

Second-Degree Burns

A second-degree burn occurs when burning reaches the second layer of skin. Second-degree burns may cause symptoms like:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Blisters
  • Reddening
  • Soreness
  • Thickening of the skin

Third-Degree Burns

A third-degree burn is the most severe and deepest of the three types. Third-degree burns affect all three layers of skin. 

A third-degree burn may cause the skin to turn dark brown or white. And the skin may appear waxy and feel leathery or very dry.

How To Treat a First-Degree Burn

According to Dr. Batra, you can take care of first-degree burns at home by:

  1. Running the affected area under cool—not cold—water.
  2. Covering the burn with a sterile, non-adhesive bandage or cloth.
  3. Taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen for minor pain.
  4. Putting a cool (not cold) compress on it to soothe any lingering pain.
  5. Avoiding sunlight.

To help the burn heal, never use ice, butter, or at-home ointments, all of which worsen it. 

First-degree burns typically take several days to heal. Also, scarring occurs depending on the depth of the burn. Deeper burns require new tissue formation to restore the skin's outer seal. 

While the new tissue may not appear to match the surrounding skin in color or texture, "first-degree burns rarely scar since only the top layer of the epidermis is affected," noted Dr. Batra.

How To Treat a Second-Degree Burn

To treat a second-degree burn, Dr. Batra advised following the same steps you would take to treat a first-degree burn.

Dr. Batra added that second-degree burns usually heal in about three weeks but can vary depending on how deep the burn is.

Treating Blisters

As blisters form, do not pop or break the new blisters. Those blisters can become infected and lead to further damage and scarring if they are broken or not appropriately treated. 

To treat a blister, Dr. Batra recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Cover the blister with antibiotic ointment.
  2. Loosely bandage the blisters with non-stick dressings that are changed once or twice a day.
  3. Consider seeing a healthcare provider to test for severity and to prescribe antibiotics if necessary.

"Because second-degree burns can cause open wounds, refrain from using cotton balls or anything that can leave fibers in the affected area and increase the risk of infection," advised Dr. Batra.

Preventing Scars

Dr. Batra said that second-degree burns affect the epidermis and dermis, which may scar if the burn is deep enough. 

According to Dr. Batra, people with olive-tone or pigmented skin are more likely to have lasting discoloration after a burn than others. The inflammation tends to alter pigment production in darker skin types. 

Also, some evidence suggests that the longer a burn takes to heal, the better the chances of scarring.

The best way to prevent scarring is to take those steps to treat the wound properly. Also, keep the area protected from the sun. And if you have scarring, remember that it will improve gradually.

"All wounds continue to remodel, and scars improve for six to 12 months after the injury," said Dr. Batra. "If the texture remains firm or raised, silicone-based gels or sheeting may help soften the scar."

How To Treat a Third-Degree Burn

"Third-degree burns can cause serious wounds and have long-term consequences," explained Dr. Batra. "As such, if you suspect you have a third-degree burn, call 911 immediately." 

If you are with someone who may have a third-degree burn, it's essential to monitor their breathing and pulse rate. 

"While awaiting medical attention, raise the injury above your heart and refrain from treating it on your own [to avoid an infection]," advised Dr. Batra.

If you suspect that the person is going into shock:

1. Lay the person flat.
2. Elevate their feet while keeping the burned area elevated, if possible.
3. Cover them with a blanket.

"Blankets and radiant warmers are useful to help conserve heat and to lower the risk of shock," added Robert Glatter, MD, attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

Third-degree burns can vary significantly in healing time due to the severity of the burn, explained Dr. Batra. 

"Sometimes skin grafting may be required. [Skin grafting] is when a piece of unburned skin is surgically removed from elsewhere and then moved to cover the burned area," said Dr. Batra. "Other problems caused by a severe third-degree burn can affect deep skin tissue, bones, and organs. [Those problems] may need to be treated with surgery, physical therapy, or rehabilitation."

Unfortunately, third-degree burns will scar due to the extent of the damage to tissue and nerve endings.

"As the dead skin cells begin to regenerate, they will often create an area of thickened, red, shiny skin," added Dr. Batra. "And a skin graft may be needed to cover the burned area."

When To See a Healthcare Provider

In some circumstances, a burn warrants urgent medical care. Call 911 or seek immediate help if:

  • The burn seems like a third-degree burn (the skin is leathery or charred).
  • You're unsure about the severity of the burn.
  • The burn is about the size of your palm or more prominent.
  • The burn is caused by chemicals, electricity, or physical abuse.
  • The person with the burn is going into shock or has other symptoms associated with the burn.
  • The person burned is a child, a person who is older, or a person with a weakened immune system.

It's also important to watch for signs of an infection. Consult a healthcare provider if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Drainage or pus
  • Fever
  • Increased pain
  • Red streaks spreading from the burn
  • Swollen lymph nodes

A Quick Review

The best steps to take after a burn depends on the severity of the burn. You can treat minor burns—like first-degree burns and some second-degree burns—at home. Run water over the affected area, bandage the burn, take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine, and treat any potential blistering or scarring. 

If you or someone else has a severe burn, you must call 911 immediately. Look for and address any signs of shock. While the prognosis varies for third-degree burns, you can help a minor burn heal in as little as a few days by treating it appropriately.

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  2. National Library of Medicine. Burns.

  3. American Burn Association. Initial first aid treatment for minor burns.

  4. Finnerty CC, Jeschke MG, Branski LK, Barret JP, Dziewulski P, Herndon DN. Hypertrophic scarring: the greatest unmet challenge after burn injuryLancet. 2016;388(10052):1427-1436. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)31406-4

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Burns.

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