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Preventing and Treating Burns

Contributor John Schulz, MD, PhD
3 minute read
A parent puts a bandage on a child’s burn.

It’s easy to wind up with a burn when taking a tray of cookies out of the oven or lighting a candle. Fortunately, most mild burns can be treated easily at home, but sometimes you may need medical attention. John Schulz, MD, PhD, a Mass General Brigham surgeon and medical director of the Burn Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, provides guidance on preventing and treating burns.

Practice fire safety to prevent burns

There are simple steps you can take to keep your family safe and reduce the risk of burns occurring in the first place. Here’s how to practice fire safety at home:

  • Install and maintain smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

  • Develop a fire escape plan.

  • Be careful in the kitchen, especially when young children are present.

  • Use electrical devices properly and safely.

  • Keep a perimeter around heat sources like fireplaces, fire pits, and space heaters.

  • Use caution with candles, matches, and lighters.

It’s important to discuss all these safety measures with every member of the family, including young children. “Of course, sometimes younger kids forget the rules because they get excited when they see something they want to grab,” Dr. Schulz says. “But if you reinforce the message over time, that can help.”

Prevent scalding by hot liquids

Anyone who’s ever spilled a hot mug of coffee or tea knows that burns aren’t only caused by open flames. Dr. Schulz recommends the following safety measures to prevent scalding burns:

  • Never set your home’s hot water above 120 degrees.

  • Never warm baby formula or milk in the microwave because the liquid can heat up unevenly. Always check the temperature on your arm before feeding your child.

  • Always check a bath’s water temperature before your child gets in.

  • Be careful when holding warm beverages. Keep cups out of arm’s reach, and don’t drink one while you’re holding a small child. “This is one of the most frequent causes of scalding injuries in children and toddlers,” Dr. Schulz warns.

Avoid other types of burns

Burns can also be caused by:

  • Strong cleaning chemicals, like oven cleaners or drain cleaners coming in contact with the skin: If you have children in the home, put locks on cabinets where these cleaners are stored.

  • Sun exposure: Always wear sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher when going outside, even on a cloudy day. Don’t forget to reapply every 2 hours or sooner, if you’re in the water.

  • Contact with hot outdoor surfaces like sun-warmed asphalt or playground equipment: Make sure children are wearing proper footwear and test outdoor surfaces before kids begin to play.

  • Sparklers or fireworks: Stay at least 6 feet away from people holding sparklers, stand still while holding a lit sparkler, and supervise children carefully.

How are burns diagnosed?

Burns are diagnosed in terms of degrees, ranging from mild to more severe burns:

  • Mild or first-degree burn: This burn causes pain and redness in the outer layer of the skin.

  • Second-degree burn: This more severe burn causes blistering and swelling of the skin.

  • Third- and fourth-degree burns: These burns go deeper into the skin tissue, can affect the muscles and bones, and should be treated as an emergency.

How to care for burns

If the worst should happen and you get burned, the proper treatment depends on how bad the burn is and what caused it.

Treatment for burns can include:

  • Minor burns: Clean the skin with soap and water if necessary, “even if it stings,” says Dr. Schulz.

  • First-degree burn: Put it under cool running tap water and avoid using ice, as this can further damage the skin. Wrap the burn in a fresh bandage.

  • Second degree burns with blistering: See a doctor.

  • Chemical burns of any degree or severity: See a doctor. They may need to remove the chemicals or neutralize them in a special process called decontamination.

Burns can also increase your risk for tetanus, so make sure you’re up-to-date on your vaccines.

With these tips in mind, you can prevent and easily treat most burns. If you have any doubt, contact your primary care provider (PCP) and seek medical attention.

John Schulz, MD, PhD


Surgeon and Medical Director, Mass General Burn Center