About 4,000 people die each year in the United States from fire and burn injuries. Burns are one of the leading causes of childhood injury. They can be caused by scalding from hot liquids or cooking oils, contact with flames, or from overexposure to the sun. Burn also can be electrical (e.g., when a child bites an electrical cord) or chemical (e.g., resulting from swallowing or spilling bleach on your skin).

Minor Burns

  • Remove the person from the heat source and remove any burned clothing, except clothing imbedded in the burn.
  • Run cool — not cold — water over the burn or hold a clean, cold compress on it until the pain subsides. Do not use ice. Do not use not butter or other types of grease.
  • Remove jewelry or tight clothing from around burned areas, and apply a clean bandage. You can also apply antibiotic cream.

Seek emergency care for more serious burns and for any burns to the eyes, mouth, hands, and genital areas, even if mild. If the burn covers a large area, get medical attention immediately. Get immediate medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms related to a burn:

  • Fever
  • Puss-like or foul-smelling drainage
  • Excessive swelling
  • Redness of the skin
  • A blister filled with greenish or brownish fluid
  • A burn that doesn’t heal in 10 days to two weeks

Never break blisters from a burn and remember not to remove clothing stuck to burned skin. If you are helping someone with a serious burn, keep the burned areas elevated to reduce swelling.

In addition, know what to do in case you or your clothing catches fire: stop (don’t run), drop (to the floor, immediately), and roll (cover your face and hands while rolling over to smother the flames).

If you are helping someone else who has been burned, remove the person from danger first, unless doing so puts you in danger as well.

Chemical and Electrical Burns

For chemical and electrical burns, call 911 or your local emergency number. Assess the situation to make sure you (and the victim) will not be in contact with the burn source. For electrical injuries, DO NOT approach an injured person until you know the power source has been turned off.

For chemical burns:

  • Dry chemicals should be brushed off the skin by a person wearing gloves.
  • Remove the person’s clothing and jewelry and rinse chemicals off the skin by placing the person in a shower for 15 to 20 minutes. (Be careful to protect your eyes and the eyes of the injured person.)
  • Wet chemicals should be flushed off affected areas with cool running water for 20 minutes or longer or until emergency help arrives.
  • If you or someone else has swallowed a chemical substance or an object that could be harmful (e.g., watch battery) call poison control first (1-800-222-1222) and then 911. It is helpful to know what chemical product has been swallowed. Take it with you to the hospital.

Minor electrical burns can be treated with cool (not cold or ice) compresses. After cleansing, a mild antibiotic ointment and bandage may be applied. A tetanus shot is also recommended, especially if the person has not had one in more than 10 years.

For more serious electrical burns:

  • Check for breathing. If the person is not breathing, start rescue breathing if you know how.
  • Raise burned arms and legs higher than the person’s heart.
  • Cover the person with cool, wet cloths. Do not use butter, ointments or any other home remedy. Do not break the blisters or remove burned skin.

Anyone who thinks they're having a medical emergency should not hesitate to seek care. Federal law ensures that anyone who comes to the emergency department is treated and stabilized, and that their insurance provides coverage based on symptoms, not a final diagnosis. 

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