Superficial burn

General information

A burn means tissue damage caused by heat or a corrosive substance. Usually burns are caused by hot liquids, steam or a hot object. Other causes include an open fire, electricity, corrosive chemicals or radiation (such as UV radiation from the sun). The longer the exposure and the hotter the source of injury, the more severe the burn.

A first degree burn is a superficial burn, and its symptoms include redness, swelling and pain on the skin. The skin has normal sensation and it feels dry. A superficial first degree burn heals in about a week.

A second degree burn is a superficial burn in which the top layer of the skin is damaged and the subcutaneous tissue is excreting fluid, forming blisters on the skin. Second degree burns take a couple of weeks to heal.

If the burn is more severe than a first or second degree burn the assessment of a medical professional and more intensive treatments than home remedies are necessary.

In a deep , third degree burn the skin feels dry, hard and it has no sensation. The skin turns grey and pearlescent in colour or dark and charred.

In burn injuries, the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by burn gases must also be taken into consideration. Inhaling burn fumes (in a house fire, or by an open fire, fireplace or wood-fired oven) may lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The symptoms include headache, lowered level of consciousness or drowsiness, nausea and redness in the face. A person showing the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning must be taken immediately to a hospital for assessment and treatment. If the person’s level of consciousness has lowered or they become drowsy, call 112 immediately.

Self-care

Further exposure to the source of burn injury must be prevented.

Cool the burn area under running tap water, or in a bowl of tepid water for 10–20 minutes (do not use ice cold water to prevent possible frostbite). This stops the injury from spreading into deeper tissues and reduces pain. Do not burst blisters as this may cause infection.

Protect the burn injury from dirt and bacteria. If the area is excreting or it is blistered, you can cover the injured area with a clean bandage designed specifically for burn injuries, available at pharmacies.

At first, the injury may be excreting with fluid quite heavily, which is why the bandages should be changed daily. The injuries should also be checked regularly for possible infection. Pain can be reduced with pain medication. The injured area may feel sensitive to sunlight, heat, cold and rubbing for a long time.

When should you seek medical advice?

Call 112 if

  • the burn injury is near the respiratory tract or face. Inhaling hot steam may cause burn injuries in the respiratory tract
  • the burn victim has inhaled smoke and shows symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning
  • the burn is caused by an electric shock, a corrosive chemical or radiation (other than the sun).

Go to the emergency department if

  • the burn injury is deep or caused by molten metal, boiling oil or fat.
  • a second degree burn is extensive (larger than the person’s own palm of the hand) or it is located in the area of hands or joints.
  • a first degree burn covers more than one half of the person’s body.

Even when treating a burn injury at home, close attention should be paid to the healing. Seek medical advice if

  • the injured area becomes infected
  • the injured area becomes more painful
  • there is increased swelling in the area and it excretes large quantities of tissue fluid
  • the person’s temperature is suddenly raised significantly.

With small children and older people, you should seek medical advice even with milder symptoms.

This Self-care instruction has been produced in collaboration with Duodecim Terveyskirjasto

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Updated  8.6.2020