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Outdoor First Aid

Burn Treatment: A Heated Situation

To stem the pain, act fast when treating burns.

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You touch the stove burner, thinking it’s cool. Or bump the bottom of a hot pot. Or pick up a blackened chunk of firewood, unaware that it’s red hot on the bottom. However it happens, your response is the same: your hand jerks back involuntarily, you utter words Mom wouldn’t approve of, and then you inspect the burned area.

Your flesh keeps burning after you remove it from the heat source. Even though hours might pass before a blister appears, treating the injury within the first few moments is critical for reducing the pain of the burn and the size of the blister. Act fast enough, and you may even prevent one from developing.

Your best bet is to plunge the burned area immediately into cold water, which cools the skin; as long as heat remains in the tissues, the burning sensation continues. Keep the area submerged for at least 10 minutes, stay well hydrated, and take ibuprofen to reduce the pain and inflammation.

After that, try the treatment methods below to help healing.

For a superficial (first-degree) burn, which is characterized by red, painful skin

(as in sunburn, for example), a skin moisturizer often is all that’s needed.

Partial-thickness (second-degree) burns produce painful blisters. Moisturize the area around the blister and then cover the area with gauze or a Spenco 2nd Skin Moist Burn Pad to protect it. If (or, rather, when) the blister ruptures, cautiously peel off the dead skin and gently wash the sore. For maximum healing, apply antibiotic ointment and a new dressing to the affected area; keep it on until the skin has healed.

With a full-thickness (third-degree) burn, the skin is black and charred after being exposed to an open flame, or pale and colorless after scalding. The burn site itself may not be painful, but extreme pain typically surrounds the burn. Gently wash the area, then apply antibiotic ointment and gauze. Third-degree burns larger in size than a quarter seldom heal well without a doctor’s care, but there’s no rush to find a physician if you keep the burn area clean.

But beware! Partial- or full-thickness burns covering 15 to 20 percent of the body—both arms, a leg, the chest, or the back, for instance—are life-threatening. A serious burn on the face can also be a significant risk if swelling of the airways results, possibly leading to suffocation. Immediate evacuation to a hospital is vital.


Synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polypropylene can melt, causing serious burns. Secure loose clothing when you’re near a flame.

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