First Aid for Thermal Skin Burns

Publication Date: 
Wed, 06/01/2016
By: Alere Staff


A burn on skin can occur quickly, remaining painful for days or weeks. Thermal skin burns, or burns caused by contact with a heated object, are the most commonly experienced skin burns with over one million occurring every year within the United States.1 You may know that these burns often happen when we touch hot curling irons, hot pans and boiling water, but they also occur with contact to steam, electricity, sparks and prolonged exposure to sunlight. Each of these can be labeled as a thermal skin burn.

Thermal skin burns can be divided into four main categories. These categories include1,2:

  • Superficial Skin Burn (1st Degree Burn): The least serious type of skin burn. It only affects the outermost layer of skin, causing redness, swelling and pain.
  • Superficial Partial-Thickness Skin Burn (2nd Degree Burn): A more serious burn that causes red, white or splotchy skin, swelling, pain and blisters. The burn can be treated as a minor burn unless it is larger than three inches in diameter.
  • Deep Partial-Thickness Skin Burn (3rd Degree Burn): A 3rd degree burn is more serious, burning multiple layers of skin and can be painful with deep pressure and almost always form blisters.
  • Full-Thickness Burn (4th Degree Burn): These burns involve burning all layers of the skin and underlying fat, sometimes affecting both muscle or bone. The burned skin can be charred or white. Depending on the circumstances, a person may also experience shock, trouble breathing, carbon monoxide poisoning or other toxic effects of smoke inhalation. 

There are a variety of steps you can take to prevent burns from occurring.1 Remember not to set your water heater temperature too high for when you shower, bathe or wash your hands. Make sure to keep hot foods, drinks, irons and other hot objects away from the edges of counters and tables. Wear oven mitts or use potholders when handling hot food containers or pulling them out of the oven. To reduce the chance of scalding by steam, open pot covers slowly and tilt the lid opening away from you. All of these steps can help in avoiding a nasty skin burn. 

Caring for Burns 

Sometimes, though, things happen quickly or you forget. What happens when you do get burned? Minor burns can easily be treated at home. First, cool the burn spot with cool, not cold, running water for about 10 to 15 minutes or apply a clean, cool dampened towel. Before swelling occurs, remove any rings or tight items from the burned area to prevent it from getting stuck. Apply antiseptic cream or aloe vera. If you get blisters don’t break them. If they break on their own, make sure to gently clean with mild soap and water before applying antiseptic and covering with a non-stick bandage.2 Should you continue to feel pain, take an over-the-counter pain reliever that you verified with your physician does not interact with your warfarin. Remember to never use ice, butter, cream or ointment on your burn as they can worsen the damage.1 

Even if you think your burn is minor, keep an eye on how it heals. Burns can change their classification over time and what started as a superficial burn on your skin may become deeper.1 If your burn involves any of the following descriptions, it is best to get medical attention from a professional:

  • If your burns involve your face, hands and fingers, genitals or feet.
  • If your burn is on or near a joint.
  • If your burn circles around a body part like an arm or a leg.
  • If your burn is large, covering more than 3 inches in diameter, or deep.
  • If you are older than 70.
  • If you notice any signs of infection. 

A burn is not something to take lightly. According to a study, burn injury is a primary cause of injury and death worldwide, particularly in older adults.3 Burn injuries, in comparison with younger individuals, caused an increase in physical impairment, reductions in quality of life and a loss of independence in older populations.3 A burn may seem like it only affects the surface of your skin but, in the case of more serious burns, your whole body can be affected. A burn injury can also affect your body’s immune system, worsen pre-existing conditions and make it difficult to regain a previous state of good health.3 


  1. Wiktor, A. MD, et al. Patient Information: Skin Burns (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Oct 15, 2015. Retrieved from the website:
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff. Burns – First Aid. Mayo Clinic. July 10, 2015. Retrieved from the website:
  3. Duke, J.M. et al. Long-Term Mortality Among Older Adults with Burn Injury: A Population-Based Study in Australia. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2015;93:400-406. doi: