Burns: Treatment and Prevention

What should I do if my child is burned?

First, get your child away from the source of the burn and remove any clothing or jewelry from the burned area. Don’t take off any clothing that has stuck to burned skin, however, or you could cause further injury. Next, quickly cool the burned area, since skin continues to burn because of the stored heat. The best method for cooling a burn depends on the seriousness of the burn. Here are some tips.

For mild or moderate burns

First-degree burns affect only the outer layer of the skin — the burned area is usually red and slightly swollen but has no blisters. Second-degree burns injure underlying layers of the skin and usually cause blistering, swelling, and more severe pain.

For first- or second-degree burns, loosely cover the injured area with a clean towel or sheet that’s been soaked in cool water and wrung out, or place the burned skin under cool running water. Also, give your child sips of water to drink. Call your child’s physician immediately if the injury is from an electrical burn or if the burn involves a large area of your child’s body or his face, hands, or genitals.

For more serious burns

Third-degree burns tend to turn the skin either hard and white or black and charred and are deep enough to damage nerve endings. For that reason, a third-degree burn often doesn’t hurt. Fourth-degree burns are the most serious of all because they damage tissues and organs beneath the skin.

If your child’s burns cover an area larger than three inches or appear to be third- or fourth-degree burns, call 911 immediately. Don’t apply water. Cover with a clean dry cloth. If your child has stopped breathing, start administering CPR.

Four important cautions to take when treating any burn:

1. Don’t breathe or cough on the burned skin. This increases the risk of infection.

2. Don’t apply ointments, lotions, butter, baking soda, or ice to the burned area. Ointments, lotions, and butter may hold the heat in and prevent healing. Ice can further injure the skin.

3. Don’t break blisters. They are part of the body’s healing process.

4. Don’t use adhesive bandages or cotton balls, which can stick to the skin and cause more damage.

How should I treat a chemical burn?

Burns from lye, acids, or other harsh chemicals usually cause only first-degree burns. Just like a sunburn, a mild chemical burn causes reddening and peeling. Remove contaminated clothing, and rinse the exposed areas with cold water for 20 minutes. Keep in mind that some chemicals cause worse burns when mixed with water. If your child has been exposed to a metal compound, flush the area with oil. For carbolic acid, use rubbing alcohol. Don’t apply lotions or ointments, which may worsen the pain. If the burned area is large, cover it with a clean damp sheet. Call the doctor immediately after providing first aid.

What’s the best way to relieve the pain of a minor burn?

A nonprescription medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can ease the discomfort. The pain of a first-degree burn usually disappears in two to three days. Second-degree burns are typically less painful but more likely to blister. If a blister breaks, apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment on the affected area and cover it with a bandage.

Further Resources

National Institute of Child Health & Human Development


Robert H. Pantell M.D., James F. Fries M.D., Donald M. Vickery M.D., Taking Care of Your Child: A Parent’s Illustrated Guide to Complete Medical Care. Da Capo Press.

Mayo Clinic. Burns: First Aid. http://mayoclinic.com/health/first-aid-burns/FA00022

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