How to Treat a Burn at Home

Rex's Burn Story

During lunch at school, 11-year-old Rex accidentally spilled ramen soup on his foot. The liquid was warm but not boiling. 

Rex removed his shoe and sock to inspect his wet foot. When all looked normal, he put the shoe and sock back on his foot and continued eating lunch. 

Twenty minutes later, he began to feel some pain, after another foot inspection he noticed a burn was starting to appear. Five days later, Rex would have multiple surgeries on his foot for a deep third-degree burn. To learn more about Rex’s story, watch his family’s interview on KSAT 12.

“Liquids and food particles that are hot can cause burns with continued exposure. In Rex’s case, the sock was warm and left in place for a prolonged period causing continued exposure and burn to the foot,” said Dr. Christopher Crane, pediatric burn director with University Health’s Level I pediatric trauma and burn center. “Burns, even those that seem minor, should be treated quickly to avoid continued exposure.”

Learn more about burn prevention at home, myths and facts of treating minor burns and when to get medical attention for yourself or your child. 

How to Treat a Minor Burn at Home

You’ve probably heard you should put cold water on a burn. Or was it warm water? Doesn’t honey help soothe a burn, too? There are many misconceptions about the best ways to manage a minor burn at home. Learn how to treat minor burns at home and know when to go to the emergency room.

Superficial Burn (Formerly Referred to as 1st Degree Burn)

Small superficial burns, like a sunburn or a burn from touching a hot pan, don’t need medical attention. They can usually be soothed with a cold compress and over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen. Superficial burns only affect the outer layer of the skin and usually heal within two weeks.

You can apply moisturizer or aloe vera to soothe your skin and prevent it from drying out.

Superficial Partial Thickness or Deep Partial Thickness (Formerly Referred to as 2nd Degree Burn)

A partial thickness burn affects the outer and second layers of your skin. These are more severe than superficial burns but can usually still be treated at home. Partial thickness burns may be caused by:

  • Fire
  • Electric shock
  • Chemicals
  • Hot objects
  • Scalding from steam or boiling water

You can treat a partial thickness burn at home by:

  • Gently cleansing the skin with cool water for 5-30 minutes at a time
  • Covering the burn with non-stick gauze or a clean bandage that you change daily
  • Taking over-the-counter pain relievers

Full Thickness (Formerly Referred to as 3rd and 4th Degree Burns)

A full thickness burn affects all three layers of the skin and requires emergency medical care. The skin may appear dry, leathery, swollen, and may change color to black, white, brown or yellow.

Depending on the severity of the burn, treatment may include:

  • IV fluids containing electrolytes
  • Breathing and blood circulation support
  • Oral antibiotics
  • Antibiotic cream (bacitracin or Neosporin)
  • Removing dead tissue from the area
  • Skin grafts
  • Surgery
  • Special bandages
  • Follow-up care including physical therapy

What Not to Put on a Burn

Applying condiments or items found around the kitchen can lead to infection. Do not put the following on a burn:

  • Butter
  • Grease
  • Ice
  • Oil 
  • Toothpaste 
  • Honey

When to Get Medical Attention

If there is any concern whatsoever, seeking medical care is never wrong. You should seek medical attention for superficial partial thickness burns and large deep partial thickness burns.

Superficial burns that are more extensive, or if they involve joints, face, genital areas, hands and feet need medical attention to ensure healing.  

You may also need physical or occupational therapy to ensure the scarring is minimized and the joints retain normal function.

When a Burn Is Infected

If a minor burn becomes infected, you should seek medical attention. Signs of an infected burn may be:

  • Redness around the burn site
  • Low grade fever
  • Skin discoloration
  • Pus leakage
  • Bad smell coming from the burn site
  • Severe pain
  • Swelling 

Your provider can prescribe antibiotics to resolve the infection.

Burn Prevention 

The easiest way to treat a burn is to prevent it from happening. Some tips to prevent burns at home include:

  • Check water heater setting to ensure it does not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit 
  • Test bath water before using
  • Always direct pot handles toward the center or back of the stove
  • Do not cook or have active heat sources on the ground
  • Ensure lighters are out of reach
  • Never allow children to handle hot liquids
  • Keep coffee or hot liquids out of reach
  • Thoroughly rinse fire pits when not in use
  • Keep curling irons and straighteners out of reach

Burn Care at University Health 

Learn more about burn prevention and the pediatric burn program at University Health in San Antonio.

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