Minor burns: first aid

Minor burns often occur when we least expect it! There are various elements that can cause burns, such as hot water or vapour, a scalding object, a flame, chemicals, electricity, and overexposure to the sun. What should be done in this kind of situation?

Minor burns

A minor burn is often described as a “first degree burn”. It affects the epidermis, the outer layer of the skin. When this occurs, the skin appears dry, red, and is painful. When pressed down with a finger, the skin turns white. In most cases, minor burns heal within three to six days and do not leave a scar.

A minor burn can sometimes cause small lesions on the skin, such as blisters. Healing can sometimes take longer if the skin is broken. The appearance of a scar is possible.

Most common burns are minor and can be treated at home. However, more serious burns require immediate medical care. This text focuses on minor burns only and does not address the management of second or third degree burns.

When to see a doctor

It is recommended to see a doctor immediately if the burn:

  • is located on the face, eyes, ears, feet or genitals
  • is located near a joint, such as a knee or shoulder
  • is larger in diameter than approximately 7 cm
  • is deep (deeper than the epidermis)
  • seems to be infected
  • was sustained by a person who is under age 5 or over age 70
  • was sustained by a person whose immune system is weakened
  • causes fever (> 38 °C), and
  • was caused by electricity

If you are not sure if a burn justifies a medical visit, call a healthcare professional (for instance, your pharmacist or 811). When in doubt, see a medical professional.

Infamous “old wives cures” and other myths

Many families use a multitude of legendary cures meant to relieve and treat burns. In reality, one must be very prudent before applying anything on a burn, as any false move can make the pain worse, exacerbate the wound or increase the risk of infection.

Here are some examples of foods or substances that were traditionally recommended, but that should not be used:

  • potato
  • toothpaste
  • butter or margarine
  • oil
  • vinegar
  • honey, and
  • egg white

Here are two other common myths:

  • Blisters should be burst. A blister serves a purpose—it helps protect the skin while it heals. Bursting it compromises the healing process and increases the risk of infection.
  • Ice should be administered to a burn. It is not recommended to apply cold or ice to a burn, as this can make the situation worse.

How to treat a minor burn

There are five basic steps to treat a minor burn. Steps 1 and 2 are interchangeable.

  1. Cool the skin. After having removed the element that has caused the burn (i.e. scalding coffee), rinse the skin with cool water for a maximum of 5 minutes. This should help reduce pain. A gentle stream of water is preferable. Cool compresses can also be applied for up to 30 minutes.
  2. Clean the skin. It is important to gently clean the wound. To do this, use a gentle soap (ideally fragrance-free) and cool water. Next, dry the wound by gently dabbing it using a clean cloth or towel. Avoid rubbing or drying vigorously. It is not necessary to disinfect the wound. The use of alcohol, iodine, hydrogen peroxide or any other disinfectant holds no advantage. Then, clean the skin daily and with each dressing change.
  3. Prevent infection. A burn is a lesion that is at risk of infection, especially when the skin is broken. To prevent infection, it is recommended to apply a topical antibiotic (in cream, ointment or lotion form). Carefully follow the product manufacturer’s instructions or those given by a pharmacist. An antibiotic is usually applied once to three times daily. If the wound is covered with a dressing, the antibiotic should be applied at the time of the dressing change.
  4. Cover the burn with a dressing. Not every minor burn requires to be covered with a dressing. This step is especially necessary if the skin is broken. In this case, a dressing made of sterile gaze can be used. The dressing should be changed once or twice a day. It can be difficult to choose among the wide range of dressings available at the pharmacy. It is preferable to ask your pharmacist for advice.
  5. Moisturize the skin. Once the burn seems to have healed, applying a moisturizer can help the skin to regain all of its elasticity. Choose a quality moisturizer that is fragrance-free and that does not have superfluous ingredients. Your pharmacist can recommend an adequate moisturizer.

How to relieve pain and itching

It is not uncommon for a minor burn to cause discomfort or pain. If this is the case, an analgesic can be taken such as acetaminophen or an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen, but speak to your pharmacist first. Ask him/her to help you choose the product that is most suitable for you according to your age, health, medical history, and the other medications you take. The pharmacist may also indicate the recommended dosage.

If you must administer medication to a child, ask the pharmacist to specify the dose to be given according to his/her age and weight.

The healing process may cause unpleasant itching. This is a normal part of the process and it usually fades in the days that follow the burn. However, if the itching bothers you, consider using medication, such as an oral antihistamine like diphenhydramine, which could be beneficial, especially at night. Some topical products could also be useful. Ask your pharmacist to recommend which ones.

It is important not to scratch, as this can compromise healing and increase the risk of infection.

The role of your pharmacist

The quality of care that you provide to all wounds influences healing and the unpleasant effects. Consequently, don’t leave anything up to chance. When a burn occurs, ask your pharmacist to help you choose products and medications that are likely to help you (cleansers, moisturizers, antibiotics, dressings, etc.). Your pharmacist is knowledgeable about first aid. Additionally, it could be helpful to purchase certain products ahead of time for your medicine cabinet. You will thank yourself for being prepared when a burn comes to cast a cloud over a family member’s day!


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Minor burns: first aid

Minor burns often occur when we least expect it! There are various elements that can cause burns, such as hot water or vapour, a scalding object, a flame, chemicals, electricity, and overexposure to the sun. What should be done in this kind of situation?