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Home burn care do’s and don’ts

May 01, 2018 | UCI Health
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Have you heard that smearing butter on a burn, pressing a cut potato against it or icing it can help promote healing and ease the pain?

None of these methods are recommended, says Dr. Nicole P. Bernal, a surgeon and burn specialist with the UCI Regional Burn Center. In fact, these age-old home remedies not only don’t work, they also can do more damage to burned skin.

What is the right way to treat a burn? The first thing to consider is how severe it is, says Bernal. Burns are generally classified by the depth of damage to the skin:

First-degree burns

  • These burns affect only the skin’s surface, or epidermis, and usually result in redness and mild pain.
  • Overexposure to the sun can cause a first-degree burn.

Most first-degree burns don’t require medical attention, says Bernal. She recommends rinsing the burn area with cool water for five to 10 minutes or until the pain subsides. Next, apply a moisturizing lotion and if needed, take an over-the-counter pain reliever for a few days. If the pain doesn’t subside, see a doctor.

Second-degree burns

  • These burns penetrate to the second layer of skin, or dermis.
  • They are usually bright red with a moist or blistered appearance.
  • Scalding with extremely hot water or other liquid may cause this type of burn.
  • Some second-degree burns may require a skin graft or skin substitute to heal.

Blistering and sluffing of skin is common with second-degree burns and can become infected, which is why Bernal advises consulting a physician.

Third-degree burns

  • These burns involve all layers of the skin and are usually dry or leathery to the touch.
  • They can appear ashen or charred black or brown.
  • If the burn has damaged nerve endings, the patient may have no sensation of pain.
  • Causes can be hot oil, friction, touching hot surfaces such as a stove, curling iron or a motorcycle muffler or even a chemical burn.

These more serious burns can lead to devastating injury, including loss of function or limbs, disfigurement and recurring infection. Severe burns can damage muscles and other tissue that affect every system of the body, and they can result in death.

Third-degree burns need immediate medical attention and often require a skin graft or skin substitute to heal, Bernal says.

Center versed in all aspects of burn care

The UCI Regional Burn Center at UC Irvine Medical Center uses a multidisciplinary team of burn-specialist surgeons, nurses, wound care specialists, physical therapists, social workers, case managers and psychologists to manage all aspects of burn care. It’s the only burn center in Orange County verified by the American College of Surgeons and the American Burn Association. It includes an inpatient unit and an outpatient clinic.

Treating burns at home

Many minor burns can be treated at home. Bernal offers these do’s and don’ts:

Do:

  • Run cool water (not cold or icy) for five to 10 minutes over a burn smaller than your hand.
  • Seek medical attention for any burn larger than your hand — fingers to wrist — or if the burn affects the feet, face, eyes or genitalia.
  • See a doctor if you have diabetes and you burn your foot.
  • Get immediate care if your cell phone or e-cigarette explodes in your pocket, if you fall into a fire pit or any time your clothes catch fire.
  • Remove clothing and jewelry near a burn, but don’t try to peel off clothing stuck to the burn.

Don’t:

  • Touch or soak a serious burn. Cover it with something dry and get to a hospital or burn clinic.
  • Pop blisters. But if they do burst, gently peel away the dead skin so germs don’t have a home to live in.

Treatment for small burns 

For first-degree burns or second-degree burns smaller than about two inches in diameter, Bernal recommends the following home-treatment steps:

  • Wash the area daily with mild soap.
  • Apply an antibiotic ointment or dressing to keep the wound moist.
  • Cover with gauze or a Band-Aid to keep the area sealed.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment frequently to burns in areas that cannot be kept moist.

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