Burns first aid

Pain is not an indicator of the severity of a burn. Burns are classified according to how much of the body surface is burnt and how deeply into the skin the burn penetrates.

First degree burns look like sunburn. There is mild swelling, redness and pain. There are no blisters. The damage to tissues is usually minimal as only the surface of the skin (epidermis) is involved. The pain gets better in 48 to 72 hours and there is usually no scarring.

In second degree burns blisters form and the burns are very painful because they affect a large number of nerve endings. They involve injury to the full thickness of the epidermis and a portion of the layer beneath this – the dermis. If this type of burn is not infected, it will heal in seven to 14 days with little or no scarring.

Third degree or full thickness burns appear white (or black) and bloodless and are not painful. The area of the burn also feels leathery and hard. These burns involve destruction of the entire epidermis and dermis, leaving no residual skin cells to heal the damaged area. This type of burn can only heal with skin grafting and contraction of the wound to cover the damaged area. They leave deep scars.

The amount of the body surface which is involved is also important in assessing how serious the burn is, since all treatment is calculated using an estimation of the extent and depth of the burn surface. As a rule of thumb: the area from the wrist crease to the finger crease (the palm of the hand) equals one percent of the body surface area.

Get help immediately if:

  • It is a third degree, chemical or electrical burn
  • A small child, baby or elderly person is burnt, even if you think that the burn is minor
  • The face, hands or feet, genitalia or creases of the joints are burnt, or if the burn involves the whole circumference of the limb or body.
  • Ambulance: 10177

Home treatment

First degree burns

  • Remove clothing and jewellery from burnt area immediately.
  • Submerge the burnt area in cool water – you can also cover it with a wet, clean cloth, particularly if the burn is on the face. Don’t use ice as it can cause frostbite.
  • Wash the area gently with soap and water.
  • Cover it with an antiseptic cream and a dry gauze bandage which should be changed twice a day.
  • Never use butter, grease or oil on a burn.
  • Take paracetamol for pain.

Second degree burns

  • Follow the instructions for first degree burns.
  • Don’t burst blisters because they are important in helping the skin heal.
  • If blisters break, clean them with water, apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a gauze bandage.
  • If the burn is on the arm or leg, keep the limb elevated.
  • See a doctor if the wound shows no sign of improvement after two days or if there are signs of infection.

Third degree burns

  • Don’t remove any clothing near or at the site of the burn.
  • Don’t apply cold water or medication.
  • Place clean, dry cloths over the damaged area.
  • If the burn is on the arm or leg, keep the limb elevated.
  • If the burn is on the face, check that the person is not having difficulty breathing.
  • Check that the person isn’t in shock.
  • Get to the hospital immediately.

Chemical burns

  • Remove clothing, cutting it away if necessary to avoid spreading the chemical to other parts of the skin.
  • Rinse the burnt areas with cool running water for 20 minutes, and wash gently with soap.
  • Don't apply lotions or ointments to the burnt skin.
  • If the burnt area is large, cover it with a clean, damp sheet.
  • If a chemical has been swallowed or inhaled, call a poison information centre immediately and follow their instructions.
  • If the chemical splashed into the eyes, flush the eyes for 20 minutes with water poured from a pitcher.
  • Call the doctor immediately after providing first aid.

Electrical burns

  • Turn off the source of the electricity if possible. If not, use a nonconducting object made of wood, cardboard or plastic to move the source away from you and the person.
  • Check that the person is breathing. If breathing has stopped, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Cover any burnt area with a sterile gauze bandage or a clean cloth.
  • Call the doctor immediately after providing first aid.

Call your doctor if:

  • A burn has not healed within 10 to 14 days.
  • A burn, even a minor one, becomes infected. Signs of infection include increased pain, redness, fever of 37.8 degrees Celsius or higher, swelling or oozing.
  • The burn is black, charred, or white and/or covers an area greater than your chest.
  • Blisters appear or if there are any signs of heatstroke as a result of sunburn.


  • Never leave your child alone in a room with a wood fire, a paraffin stove or in the kitchen with pots on the stove.
  • Keep kettles, toasters and similar appliances far back on working surfaces so that they cannot be pulled down.
  • Always make sure that electrical appliances are safely earthed and that plugs have child-proof covers if they are not in use.
  • Store erosive chemicals out of reach of children.
  • Always use flame proof materials for bedding and clothing.
  • Set the thermostat of your hot water tank at 50 degrees Celsius or lower.
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