Burns Treatments


Initial treatment for ALL burn

After moving the person to safety, run cool tap-water over the area for at least 20 minutes.( Not cold water or ice - See "Misconceptions" below )

The most important thing is to keep the burn cool.  This not only relieves a lot of the pain, but greatly reduces the healing time. Cooling should continue during transport of the patient to medical help.

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Alternative to running water

Soak lint-free material in any cool clean water and place it gently on the burn.  Replace it with another soaked dressing as soon as it feels warm ­ usually only a couple of minutes. Keep doing this for at least 20 minutes.

If you don't change it often enough, it will hold the heat in and make the burn worse. ( Remember ­ don't use cold water or ice.  See "Misconceptions". ) Cooling should continue during transport of the patient to medical help.

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Deeper burns

Dressings will stick to damaged skin, so apply one soaked layer of thin clean cloth directly on the burn, and leave it there.  You can then run water over the dressing, or apply and remove further layers of wet cloth to cool the area without disturbing the burn itself.  All burns like this, no matter how small, should be seen by a qualified person.

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What should I do next ?

After making the patient safe and starting to cool the burn, the next most important thing is to keep them warm and give them plenty of water to drink.      

It may seem strange, but many burns victims suffer from hypothermia ( = being dangerously cold ), so while the burn is kept cool and wet, the rest of the patient must be kept warm and dry ( remove wet clothes and cover with a blanket ).

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What else should I do ?

Starting the above steps within three hours of a burn is beneficial*, and you have then done as much as you can to help.  It can be very hard to wait for qualified assistance, but you may cause lasting harm if, for example, you try to give pain relief or clean the burn. Take comfort from the fact that by following the above advice you are doing the very best you can for the patient.

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Misconceptions about ice, a soothing cream or some pain killers

We are always learning more about the best treatment for burns, and advice on this page is current for early 2003*.

            "Burn cream" ( meaning all creams, ointments, lotions, butter etc ) acts as an insulator to keep the heat in the burn, causing the damage to spread deeper and wider.  It should never be applied as first aid.

            Ice and very cold water causes blood vessels in the area to shut down, making permanent damage much more likely.

            Wet dressings must be changed very frequently if they are to help and not harm.  See "deeper burns" above about protecting damaged skin.

            "Fortifying drinks" ( including sweet tea, sports drinks, alcohol etc ) may cause vomiting in a distressed patient and lead to serious complications. Water is the safest and most beneficial drink to give.

            Pain relief should be given only by suitably qualified people. Even paracetamol or aspirin can be dangerous for an injured person, so it is better to wait, and to help the pain by cooling the wound as above.

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What should a burns first aid kit include ?

NO "Burn Cream" or anything similar ( see "Misconceptions" above )

Clean white lint-free cloths in a Zip-Lock bag.  An old sheet is ideal - cut or tear it into 20cm squares.  Avoid flannelette or stretchy material.

A few ice-cream containers, or similar, for transferring water

NO "Burn Cream" ( it's worth repeating ! )

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Where can I find a first aid kit ?

There are many ready-made kits available from Ambulance and Motoring organizations, as well as in some shops.  Most of these contain basic useful items, but the trade-off for convenience is that you may be paying for things you will never need.  If you buy one of these kits, I suggest you add the above items and remove the burn cream..

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Further information

If you have more questions about First Aid for burns, or any other First Aid questions, please contact your local hospital, your community nurse or doctor, or the Ambulance Service.  You may like to do a First Aid course, or perhaps ask a qualified person to give a talk to an interested group. 

First Aid Saves Lives.

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*Reference : McCormack, La Hei and Martin: "First Aid Management of Minor Burns" MJA 2003; 178 : 31-33