Health A to Z
Burns and scalds are damage to the skin caused by heat. Both are treated in the same way.
A burn is caused by dry heat – by an iron or fire, for example. A scald is caused by something wet, such as hot water or steam.
Burns can be very painful and may cause:
The amount of pain you feel isn't always related to how serious the burn is. Even a very serious burn may be relatively painless.
To treat a burn, follow the first aid advice below:
The British Red Cross website has a video about first aid for burns.
Read more about treating burns and scalds.
Depending on how serious a burn is, it may be possible to treat it at home. For minor burns, keep the burn clean and don't burst any blisters that form.
More serious burns require professional medical attention. You should go to a hospital A&E department for:
If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also seek medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed and can include:
People at greater risk from the effects of burns, such as children under five years old and pregnant women, should also get medical attention after a burn or scald.
The size and depth of the burn will be assessed and the affected area cleaned before a dressing is applied. In severe cases, skin graft surgery may be recommended.
Read more about:
Burns are assessed by how seriously your skin is damaged and which layers of skin are affected. Your skin has three layers:
There are four main types of burn, which tend to have a different appearance and different symptoms:
Many severe burns and scalds affect babies and young children. Examples of things you can do to help reduce the likelihood of your child having a serious accident at home include:
Read more about preventing burns and scalds.
Appropriate first aid must be used to treat any burns or scalds as soon as possible. This will limit the amount of damage to your skin.
You can apply the following first aid techniques to yourself or another person who has been burnt.
Once you have taken these steps, you'll need to decide whether further medical treatment is necessary. Go to a hospital accident and emergency (A&E) department for:
Also get medical help straight away if the person with the burn:
If someone has breathed in smoke or fumes, they should also seek medical attention. Some symptoms may be delayed, and can include:
See recovering from burns and scalds for information on how serious burns are treated.
Electrical burns may not look serious, but they can be very damaging. Someone who has an electrical burn should seek immediate medical attention at an A&E department.
If the person has been injured by a low-voltage source (up to 220-240 volts) such as a domestic electricity supply, safely switch off the power supply or remove the person from the electrical source using a material that doesn't conduct electricity, such as a wooden stick or a wooden chair.
Don't approach a person who is connected to a high-voltage source (1,000 volts or more).
Chemical burns can be very damaging and require immediate medical attention at an A&E department. If possible, find out what chemical caused the burn and tell the healthcare professionals at A&E.
If you're helping someone else, put on appropriate protective clothing and then:
In cases of sunburn, follow the advice below:
If a person with heat exhaustion is taken to a cool place quickly, given water to drink and has their clothing loosened, they should start to feel better within half an hour.
If they don't, they could develop heatstroke. This is a medical emergency and you'll need to call 999 for an ambulance.
Read more about what to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
How long it takes to recover from a burn or scald depends on how serious it is and how it's treated. If the wound becomes infected, seek further medical attention.
If your burn or scald is mild and treated at home, it normally heals without the need for further treatment. Read more about first aid for burns and scalds.
While the skin heals, keep the area clean and don't apply any creams or greasy substances. Don't burst any blisters as this can lead to infection.
If you've scalded the inside of your mouth by drinking something hot, try to avoid things that can irritate the scalded area, such as hot and spicy food, alcohol and smoking, until the area heals.
Mild burns or scalds that only affect the uppermost layer of skin (superficial epidermal burns) usually heal in about a week without any scarring.
If you have a burn or scald that requires medical treatment, it will be assessed to determine the level of care required.
The healthcare professional treating you will:
Depending on how the burn happened, you may be advised to have an injection to prevent tetanus, a condition caused by bacteria entering a wound. For example, a tetanus injection may be recommended if there's a chance soil got into the wound.
Your dressing will be checked after 24 hours to make sure there are no signs of infection. It will be changed after 48 hours, and then every three to five days until it's completely healed.
Minor burns affecting the outer layer of skin and some of the underlying layer of tissue (superficial dermal burns) normally heal in around 14 days, leaving minimal scarring.
If the burn is severe, you may be referred to a specialist. In some cases, it may be necessary to have surgery to remove the burnt area of skin and replace it with a skin graft taken from another part of your body. See plastic surgery techniques for more information about this.
More severe and deeper burns can take months or even years to fully heal, and usually leave some visible scarring.
Expert opinion is divided over the management of blisters that are caused by burns. However, it's recommended that you shouldn't burst any blisters yourself.
If your burn has caused a blister, you should seek medical attention. The blister will probably remain intact, although some burns units at hospitals follow a policy of deroofing blisters. Deroofing means removing the top layer of skin from the blister.
In some cases, a needle may be used to make a small hole in the blister to drain the fluid out. This is known as aspiration and may be carried out on large blisters or blisters that are likely to burst.
Your healthcare professional will advise you about the best way to care for your blister and what type of dressing you should use.
During the first few years after a burn, you should try to avoid exposing the damaged skin to direct sunlight as this may cause it to blister. It's especially sensitive during the first year after the injury. This also applies to a new area of skin after a skin graft.
It's important to keep the area covered with cotton clothing. If the burn or scald is on your face, wear a peaked cap or wide-brimmed hat when you're out in the sun. Total sun block – for example, one with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 – should be used on all affected areas.
The area can be exposed to sunshine again around three years after the injury, but it's still very important to apply a high-factor sun cream (SPF 25 or above) and stay out of the midday sun.
Burns and scalds can sometimes lead to further problems, including shock, heat exhaustion, infection and scarring.
After a serious injury, it's possible to go into shock. Shock is a life-threatening condition that occurs when there's an insufficient supply of oxygen to the body. It's possible to go into shock after a serious burn.
Signs and symptoms of shock include:
Dial 999 and ask for an ambulance if you think that someone who has been seriously injured is going into shock.
While you wait for the ambulance:
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are two heat-related health conditions that happen when the temperature inside your body rises to 37-40C (98.6-104F) or above.
Both heat exhaustion and heatstroke can be very serious. They're often caused by being exposed to too much sunlight or heat.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke include:
If a person with heat exhaustion is taken quickly to a cool place, given water to drink and has their clothing loosened, they should start to feel better within half an hour. If they don't, they could develop heatstroke. This is a medical emergency and you'll need to call 999 for an ambulance.
Read more about what to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Wounds can become infected if bacteria get into them. If your burn or scald has a blister that has burst, it may become infected if it's not kept clean. Seek medical attention for any burn that causes a blister.
Your wound may be infected if:
Seek immediate medical attention if you think your burn has become infected. An infection can usually be treated with antibiotics and painkilling medication, if necessary.
Signs of sepsis and toxic shock syndrome include:
A scar is a patch or line of tissue that remains after a wound has healed. Most minor burns only leave minimal scarring. You can try to reduce the risk of scarring after the wound has healed by:
Many severe burns and scalds affect babies and young children. The following advice can help reduce the likelihood of your child having a serious accident.