If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please call 911 or seek care at an emergency room.
We can reduce the risk of these grim circumstances by following proven burn prevention tips—and by knowing what to do if you or a loved one gets burned.
5 common mistakes in burn treatment.
1. Putting ice on the wound.
Fight heat with cold, right? Wrong, at least when it comes to burns. Using cold water or ice on a burn is one of the biggest mistakes we see people make. I know it probably feels good at first, but it may end up doing more harm.
Remember that frostbite is as much a burn as one caused by fire. They both damage tissue, and you don’t want to add a cold injury on top of a heat injury. Also, lowering your body temperature too much can impair your physiologic response to stress and disrupt healing.
If it’s a small burn that doesn’t require immediate emergency care, run the wound under room-temperature tap water for 10 minutes. Then, apply a first aid burn cream or petroleum jelly and a bandage.
2. Using home remedies.
Speaking of first aid burn cream, don’t try making your own. Mayonnaise, mustard, honey, butter, toothpaste—I’ve seen it all applied to burns. While these products may not necessarily make a burn wound worse, they may impede healing by trapping the heat. And if they are contaminated in any way, they can lead to infection.
So save the butter for your toast. Instead, use an over-the-counter, non-perfumed, antimicrobial moisturizing agent. You also can take an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain control.
3. Popping burn blisters.
If your burns are severe enough to blister, you should be seen at a Burn Center. The providers can drain the blisters and provide dressings to protect the skin underneath.
Related reading: When to Seek Treatment at a Burn Center.
4. Asking for antibiotics.
“Is it infected? Do I need antibiotics?” This is a common question we get from burn patients. Antibiotics generally are not needed in the early management of burn wounds. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, there’s no way to completely sterilize burn areas, since our normal, healthy skin has bacteria living on it. Antibiotics taken by mouth will disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in our bodies.
Second, as antibiotic resistance has grown over the years, we’ve become much more careful about how we administer those medications. The topical agents we put on burns are anti-microbial, which provide an antibiotic action targeted to the specific area. This way, we can avoid impacting a person’s entire body.
5. Underestimating burn wounds
Burns can be deceiving. Unless you see burns all the time, a wound might not look on the surface as bad as it actually is. I would much rather you overestimate how bad a burn is and come in than wait and face long-term consequences, such as amputation or loss of function.
If the burn is bigger than the palm of your hand or there is blistering, seek help. Get medical attention if you have a persistent fever or redness that extends beyond the border of the burn injury, as these may indicate an infection.
You also may want to consider seeking treatment at a specialized like ours. The American Burn Association recommends you receive treatment from a burn center if you have:
- Burns that involve the face, hands, feet, genitals, or major joints
- Third-degree burns, which can appear charred, white, or clear with no sensation when pressed or poked
- Burns that cover more than 10% of your total body surface area
- A pre-existing medical condition such as diabetes, which can slow healing
7 ways to reduce your burn risk.
1. Always wear safety gear.
It’s not always fashionable, but safety gear such as flame-resistant goggles, gloves, and shoes can save your life. It may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised by the number of people we treat who were burned because they weren’t wearing oven mitts to pick up a hot item in the kitchen.
2. Be aware of your environment.
Stop for a moment. Do you know where the nearest exits and fire extinguishers are? Along with preventing a fire, it’s important to think about escaping from a fire as well. A little planning can go a long way. Make sure everyone in your household knows how to escape various rooms in the house and establish a plan for where to meet at a safe distance.
Patients who are on oxygen at home to treat COPD or another breathing disorder should be especially careful to avoid burns. Oxygen is an essential component of fire, so adding a spark can result in disaster. Too often we see patients with severe burns to their face because they lit a cigarette (or used an e-cigarette) near their oxygen tank. Avoid these potentially devastating injuries and never smoke or vape near an oxygen supply.
Some of the most severe burns we treat are the result of quiet self-care nights at home. While nail polish and remover, a glass of wine, and a scented candle sounds like a lovely way to spend an evening on the couch, manicure products are highly flammable. The liquids and their vapors can combust, resulting in devastating injuries. Skip the candle when painting your nails, and avoid a trip to the hospital, too.
Be sure to read and heed all warning labels to avoid a life-changing injury and know how to react if a fire starts.
3. Learn how to put out a kitchen fire.
When a pot or pan catches fire in the kitchen, people tend to want to throw it in the sink or outside. This can lead to a burn while picking it up or to the fire spreading as it’s moved.
If there’s a fire on the stovetop, cut off the oxygen that feeds it by covering the pot or pan with a lid. If this doesn’t work, pour baking soda on it or grab the fire extinguisher. Don’t try to smother the fire with a towel unless it’s soaking wet.
If something catches fire in the oven, shut the oven off and back away. The fire should eventually die down on its own. Once it’s cooled, you can open the oven and clean things up.
If a fire doesn’t dwindle within a few minutes or begins to spread, call the fire department.
Related reading: Tips to Avoid Burns in the Kitchen.
4. Use sunscreen.
These are two basic burn prevention methods that many should take more seriously. A first-degree sunburn may not be life-threatening but it can be exceptionally painful. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
5. Check the temperature of bathwater.
While most people tend to think of checking the temperature of their child’s bath, they often forget when it comes to elderly loved ones. Temperatures that young adults can tolerate may cause burns on fragile skin.
It’s all too easy to dip desensitized feet into water that’s too hot, causing scalding burns that can lead to multiple surgeries in hopes of avoiding amputation.
People with diabetes should take care to check the temperature of the bath and soaking water, too. Foot wounds and reduced sensation in the feet are common in advanced diabetes. Avoid hot water and chemicals for soaking one’s feet. The combination of neuropathy, diminished blood flow, and altered wound healing often seen with diabetes leads to limb loss with even seemingly minor burn injuries.
6. Follow appliance instructions.
Before you throw a turkey into your new deep fryer, make sure you have read the manufacturer’s instructions. Most appliances and electronics carry a risk of fire, especially if not used as directed. I’ve seen it all, including burns from e-cigarettes exploding.
7. Know your flammable household items.
Burns can happen when you least expect it. Knowing which items in your home are most likely to cause a fire can help prevent an emergency. Consider the flammability of common things such as:
- Air fresheners: These aerosolized liquids can be explosively flammable when exposed to an open flame. Blow out the scented candles before spraying your home.
- Household cleaners: Common items used to clean your home can be quite flammable due to their chemical ingredients. These include rubbing alcohol, linseed oil, oven cleaner, stain removers, most bathroom and multi-purpose cleaners, and anything in an aerosol can. Be sure to read and follow the instructions on the label whenever cleaning the house.
- Propane and gas cooking: If the fuel for your stove, oven, or gill is leaking, it could be pumping explosive gas into your home. Ensure appliances are serviced regularly, and if you smell gas, get out of the house and call 911 right away.
- Vaping devices: The lithium batteries common in many inhaled vapor devices can malfunction, causing a fire. Overheating, modified devices, improper charging, and damaged batteries are all common causes of battery problems that can lead to severe burns. Be sure to use and charge your vaping device properly to reduce your risk of burns.
We often can prevent fires and burns by following a few simple tips, and we can keep burn injuries from becoming more serious by avoiding common mistakes. If you or a loved one suffers a burn injury, seek immediate treatment at a Burn Center. Even if you don’t think the burn is “that serious,” we can make sure you receive appropriate care to prevent infection, reduce scarring and lower the risk of long-term complications.