First-degree burn: Definition, symptoms, and treatments

Staying out in the sun too long without sunscreen or other forms of protection is also a frequent cause of first-degree burns. Researchers report, however, that 80 percent of burns affecting young children are due to accidental scalding with hot liquids or objects.

What are the symptoms?

Most first-degree burns are not very big, and usually present as a red, dry area of skin.

Typically, first-degree burns do not break the skin or cause blisters to form.

The best-known and most common symptom of a first-degree burn is red skin.

Other symptoms include:

  • pain
  • soreness in the burned area, which lasts for 2 –3 days
  • skin that may be warm to the touch
  • swelling
  • dry skin
  • peeling
  • itching
  • a temporary change in skin color caused by peeling

Definition of a first-degree burn

Doctors define first-degree burns as superficial burns because they only affect the top layer of the skin.

First-degree burns vary from more severe burns in that they do not penetrate deep into the skin and other tissues.

Other burns have the following characteristics:

  • Second degree burns: These burns go through the epidermis and reach the top of the second layer of the skin, which is known as the dermis. These burns are more likely to blister and are generally more painful and swollen.
  • Third-degree burns: This type of burn penetrates the first and second layers of skin to the third and lowest level of the skin, known as the hypodermis. With these deeper burns, the affected area may appear white, like the surface of a burned piece of charcoal.
  • Fourth-degree burns: This type of burn goes through all three layers of the skin and damages the muscle, bone, nerves, and fat that is lying underneath. There is no pain with fourth-degree burns because damage to the nerves prevents any feeling.

Steps for treating a first-degree burn at home:

  • Remove clothing, watches, rings, and other jewelry near or covering the surrounding burned area.
  • Plunge the burned area into cool (not ice cold) water right away, and keep it there for about 10 minutes. If it is not possible to submerge the burned area in water, then apply cold, wet compresses to the area until the pain subsides. Never apply ice directly to a burn.
  • Gently clean the burned area with mild soap and water.
  • The American Academy of Dermatology recommend applying petroleum jelly to the burn every 8 to 12 hours. Do not use butter or toothpaste on a first-degree burn, because this can increase the risk of infection and prevent healing.
  • Keep the burned area covered with a non-stick bandage. Change the dressing three times a week, as long as there is no infection. If the burn seems infected, change the bandage every day.
  • Do not pop any blisters that may develop as this can increase the risk of infection and scarring.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

If the burn does not show signs of healing within 48 hours, or if it seems to be getting worse, seek prompt medical care.

Most first-degree burns heal entirely within 10 days.

Some people may find that the healed skin may be darker or lighter in color than the skin in other areas.

Sometimes, the burned area can itch during recovery. Although the itching might be uncomfortable, it is a regular part of healing. Skin moisturizers and OTC antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can help reduce the discomfort.

Minimizing exposure to direct sunlight and following standard sun safety practices can help prevent further damage to the skin.

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