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Types of Burns and When to Seek Treatment

Reviewed by: Amy Surdam

No matter how it occurs, experiencing a burn is never an ideal situation. Thankfully, there are various ways to determine what to do for burns and when to seek care. Whether you laid out in the sun for too long or had a grill or campfire mishap at a summer cookout, knowing how to treat a burn is crucial.

How long do burns take to heal? How do you know when to go to urgent care for a burn? Discover the answers to these questions and more in this comprehensive guide to types of burns and their treatments.

Type of Burns

Before we move into treatments for burns, let’s go over the four classifications of burns and their severity levels.

1. First-Degree

First-degree burns are typically minor, affecting only the epidermis — the outer layer of the skin. The burn site may experience some swelling, redness, pain and dryness, usually without blisters. Mild sunburn or briefly touching a hot pan or hot water can result in a first-degree burn.

Treatment from a health care provider isn’t always necessary with first-degree burns. You can use a cold compress, lotion or ointment to help reduce swelling and ibuprofen or acetaminophen to lessen the pain. In most cases, the pain and dry, peeling skin will subside within 48 hours. If symptoms continue, have a health care provider examine the burn site.

2. Second-Degree

Second-degree burns impact two layers of skin — the epidermis and the dermis. Symptoms include blotchy or red skin, pain and blisters. Examples include contact with boiling water or second-degree sunburn.

When deciding how to treat second-degree burns, it’s best to avoid ice as it can worsen pain and damage and lower body temperature. Immerse the burn site in cool water or use a compress instead.

Compared to first-degree burns, second-degree burns are more painful and take longer to heal. You should seek medical attention if you experience increasing pain, oozing, redness or fever — especially concerning burns on the hands, groin, feet, buttocks or face.


3. Third-Degree

Third-degree burns are severe, usually occurring from exposure to flames, strong chemicals, electrical sources or explosions. They damage the epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous fat layer between the skin and muscle. The burn site can appear white, blackened and charred, red, brown or bronze.

Third-degree burns are dry, leathery and usually quite painful. In some cases, however, they can cause minimal pain when they destroy the nerves. Medical care is a must with this type of burn.

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4. Fourth-Degree

Fourth-degree burns are the most life-threatening and severe type, affecting all layers of the skin, muscles, subcutaneous fat and bones. There’s no feeling in the burn site as the nerve endings are destroyed. Urgent care is necessary.

Home vs. Urgent Care vs. Emergency Room

Some burns can cause patients uncertainty about how to proceed. Typically, you should contact a health care provider or visit an urgent care clinic if the burn displays the following characteristics:

  • Penetrates deep within the skin.
  • Is larger than a quarter.
  • Isn’t painful even when it should be.
  • Causes you to go into shock.
  • Blisters immediately after the burn occurs.
  • Involves the feet, hands, head, genitals or airways.
  • Smells bad or discharges pus.

If you’re unsure whether to seek medical treatment, head to an urgent care clinic to be safe. Urgent care for burns can be a good solution if the wound isn’t severe enough for the emergency room but still causes pain.

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How Are Burns Treated?

Depending on the severity, serious burns can require medications, wound dressings, surgery and therapy. The treatment goals are to remove dead tissue, control pain, regain function, prevent infection and reduce scarring.

When you go to a health care provider for burn treatment, they will examine your skin to assess the severity of the burn. They may transfer you to a burn center if the affected area is considerably deep, covers 10% or more of your total body surface or is on the feet, groin or face. The health care provider will check for other injuries and may order X-rays and lab tests.

Medical treatment can vary by the type and severity of the burn. For instance, minor burns are treated with gentle decontamination and cleansing. The health care professional will determine the necessary products and medications to help accelerate healing. Some courses of action may involve:

  • Water-based treatments: Your health care provider may use ultrasound mist therapy to stimulate and clean the wound tissue.
  • Ointments and burn creams: Your care team may provide a wound-healing topical product, like a burn cream or ointment, to help prevent infection and prepare the wound for closing.
  • IV fluids: For more serious burns, fluids through an intravenous (IV) line may be necessary to prevent dehydration and organ failure.
  • Dressings: The health care specialist may use specialty wound dressings to prep the wound for healing. If you’re being transferred to a burn center, the wound will likely only be covered in dry gauze.
  • Antibiotics: You may receive antibiotics to ward off infection.
  • Tetanus shot: The health care provider may recommend a tetanus shot following a burn injury.

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Find an Urgent Care Clinic Near You

Knowing when to seek care for a burn is essential to ensure the affected area receives the treatment it needs. At SouthStar Urgent Care, we provide an array of urgent and occupational care services for patients of all ages. Since 2011, we’ve delivered personal care to everyone who comes through our door and served the local community as a whole.

We’re the leading provider of comprehensive urgent care services throughout Louisiana, so you can count on our professionals to guide you through the treatment process, helping you restore control over your health care and resume your daily endeavors.

Don’t let a burn discourage you from enjoying your favorite summer activities — seek the necessary treatment from our dedicated team of professionals to jumpstart the healing process. Find a SouthStar Urgent Care location near you, and let us assist you today!

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