Burns, not as easy as 1-2-3

You thought the stove burner was turned off … it wasn’t. Your hand blistered immediately and the pain was intense. You’ve just gotten a second degree burn. How do you know if you need to see a doctor?

Everyone knows that burns are measured in degrees – first, second or third. And based on degree, treatment may differ. Most minor burns can be treated at home, but deep and severe burns require immediate medical care.

Here is what you should know about burns.

First degree burns

First degree, or superficial burns, are the least severe and considered mild compared to other burns. They affect only the outer layer of the skin and are the most common type of burn. Most sunburns are first degree burns.  Signs that you have a first degree burn: 

  • Pink or red skin that is painful to the touch
  • Dry looking skin
  • Peeling as the burn heels

For all burns, any affected skin should be removed from the heat source and cooled with lukewarm or cool water for no more than 5 minutes to stop the injury. Any clothing or jewelry near the site of the burn should be removed. Acetaminophen or an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen can help reduce any swelling, redness and discomfort. Aloe vera gel can help soothe the discomfort, particularly if cooled in the refrigerator, but does not speed healing of burns. Be sure to drink extra water to help your skin rehydrate.

Second degree burns

Second degree, or partial thickness burns, can range from minor to serious and even life-threatening. The most common causes of second degree burns are a severe sunburn, touching a hot stove, exposure to fire, and contact with boiling water.

A primary care physician with Washington University Clinical Associates explains, “Second degree burns are more serious burns that affect the outer layer of skin, and the next layer, the dermis. Common symptoms of a second-degree burn include an oozing wound, blisters, intense pain, and skin that looks white, very deep red or very dark brown.”

If you think you might have a second-degree burn, you should seek medical care. You should also remove any clothing or jewelry that covers the burn. Cool the burn by running it under cool, not cold, water for no more than 5 minutes. Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Cover the burn with gauze or loose dressing. Do not break open blisters, as this can increase the risk of infection.

Dr. Hutchison adds, “Second-degree burns are more dangerous when they affect large areas of the body. Also when they affect the face, hands, feet, groin or buttocks. Depending on the location and severity of the burn, treatment can range from antibiotic cream and wound care to needing surgical treatment and skin grafting.”

Third degree burns

Third degree, or full thickness burns, can happen when exposure to heat source (fire, boiling water, or oven) lasts for more than a few seconds. These burns reach to the fat layer beneath the skin and are the most serious. Third degree burns generally do not blister and may be black, gray, or waxy white. A person with a third-degree burn may go into shock (pale and clammy skin, weakness, blueish lips and fingernails, and a drop in alertness).

According to Dr. Hutchison, “Third degree burns can also destroy nerves, causing numbness – so initially pain is absent in areas of a full thickness burn. Treatment generally requires surgical removal of the damaged tissue and may need skin grafts to replace the damaged skin. These burns place patients at high risk of infection and severe dehydration and require specialist care. Getting immediate medical attention is vital.”

Determining what kind of burn you have and receiving prompt treatment can help prevent scarring, infections and other serious complications. If you aren’t sure you need to see a doctor, call your primary care physician.

Dr. Hutchison is currently accepting new patients. Please call 314-534-8600 to make an appointment.

Grant Medical Clinic (WUCA)
114 North Taylor
St. Louis, MO 63108