Treating First Degree Burns and Scalds
Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.
This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.
Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.
Burns and scalds are among the most common injuries that first aiders encounter, and are frequent hazards in the workplace too. Rapid treatment of the injury can have a considerable impact on its severity and the burn or scald healing time, so knowledgeable response is essential. In this article, we’re going to look at how burns and scalds should be treated, and when it is appropriate to seek further medical attention or hospitalisation.
Note: A burn is the injury that results from a dry source of heat such as fire, the sun or a light bulb, whereas a scald is the injury resulting from contact with a wet source of heat such as steam or boiling water.
Virtual College offers courses designed to help businesses deal with first aid situations. One of them, the Primary Survey, is an effective process for understanding how best to approach an accident such as a burn or scald. Click here to find out more.
How to Treat a Burn or Scald
The following steps are appropriate in most cases when treating a burn or scald:
Step 1: Ensure the burn or scald does not become any worse by immediately moving the person away from the source of heat, as quickly as possible.
Step 2: Bring the temperature of the burn or scald down by running it under cool water for a minimum of 10 minutes and up to 20 if appropriate. Contrary to instinct or popular opinion, you should not use ice or very cold water, as this can cause further damage. Any kind of cream or gel should be avoided too.
Step 3: Remove any clothing or jewellery from near the burn if it is safe to do so. Be aware that it could have become stuck to the wound, in which case it must not be removed.
Step 4: Cover the wound with a layer of cling film. This will help to prevent the wound from becoming infected and can reduce scald healing time. If the injury has occurred on the hand, then you can also use a plastic bag wrapped around it in place of the cling film.
Step 5: Give the person ibuprofen or paracetamol to help reduce burn pain. Always remember to check the manufacturer’s guidelines before you give someone medication.
Depending on the situation, you may also need to do the following:
Keep the person warm - Running cool water on a large area of a person’s body, particularly if they are very young or elderly can decrease their body temperature. It is important to keep them warm to ensure that hypothermia does not occur.
Treat the person for shock - First degree burn treatment may also require treatment of shock. Shock is a defined medical condition, and can be life threatening. It can happen as a result of trauma associated with the burn, or from fluid loss also as a result of the injury. To find out more about what shock is, and how to treat it, please read our dedicated article on the subject here.
Keep the person upright if possible - If the burn or scald has affected the face or eyes, then you should keep the casualty from lying down if possible. This will help make sure that the swelling is kept to a minimum.
When to Seek Emergency Medical Help
In some cases, the burn or scald may be severe to the point that it should be seen to by emergency medical professionals. Take the casualty to your nearest Accident and Emergency department if any of the following are the case:
- The burn or scald is particularly large or deep. As a general rule, if it is bigger than the person’s hand, then you should seek medical help quickly.
- The burn or scald has caused blistering of the skin.
- The skin that has been burned has turned white, or become charred.
- The burn or scald has been caused by exposure to a chemical, or electricity.
- The burn or scald is on the face, hands or feet.
In addition to the wound itself, certain people may require additional attention as the result of a burn or scald. Again, go to your nearest A&E department if the casualty fits any of the following criteria:
- They are pregnant
- They are elderly
- They are under school age
- They have existing medical conditions that may affect their immune system or major organs such as the heart, lungs or liver.
If you are in any doubt as to the severity of the burn or scald, then you should call 999 immediately and explain the situation to the operator.
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