How should I treat a burn?

The first four steps for treating a burn are:

  1. Never put ice on a burn as this can make it worse.
  2. Clean the wound with a moist towel.
  3. Apply an antibiotic ointment such as bacitracin.
  4. Follow up a burn center as soon as possible.
Dr. Stuart A. Linder, MD
Plastic Surgeon

The treatment of a burn depends on the severity, thickness, and location of the injury. First degree burns are usually reddish in color and will heal on their own. Ice compression and antibiotic ointment can be used. Second degree burns may blister and are partial thickness. Leave the blister alone on small areas as it will act as a protective coverage. Full thickness or third degree burns often require debridement and surgical dressing changes followed by either skin grafting or flap reconstruction by a burn surgeon. After debridement, antibiotic creams such as Silvadene or Sulfamylon may be useful to reduce bacterial count and promote revascularization prior to skin grafting.

How you treat a burn depends on the severity of the burn. Most minor superficial burns can be treated by doing the following: 

  • removing clothing and debris
  • cleansing with soap and cool water
  • applying a non-adherent dressing
  • using pain management (acetaminophen/ibuprofen) 
  • tetanus prophylaxis


Some burns are preventable (sideburns and sunburns), some burns are accidental (friggin' curling iron?), and some burns are downright dumb (leave the fireworks to the pros, Smart Guy). No matter what the cause, you can take steps to soothe the pain - and prevent scarring or further damage.

First, you'll want to cool the burn with water or ice as soon as you can to reduce the prostaglandin response and limit the damage. Clean the area with water and a simple soap like Ivory, Neutrogena, Dove, or Cetaphil to remove dirt and bacteria, and don't pop any blisters that form. For the small blisters, apply a sterile moisturizer like bacitracin or neosporin twice a day and leave them intact. They serve as the ideal sterile biologic dressing over the nascent skin that is quickly growing to cover the injured area. Scarring is always worse if this new skin is hindered. Cover the burn with a fine gauze like Vaseline gauze or Adaptic. The small blisters will dry up and flake off by two weeks.

Note: If the burn is on your hands, face, or genitals (we won't ask) and is bigger than a nickel, it's a good idea to let a doc look at it. She may want to treat with an antibiotic cream called Silvadene that kills bacteria and keeps the wound moist. Also, if a new burn hurts, that's good. It means you didn't fry the full thickness of the skin. A deep burn through the dermis kills the nerves so you don't actually feel it. But an old wound that starts hurting is your body's message for you to see a doctor.

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Burn treatment depends on the degree or severity of the burn. First-degree burns are mostly treated with home care. Healing time may be quicker if you treat the burn sooner. To treat this type, you can:
  • Soak the wound in cool water for five minutes or longer
  • Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain relief
  • Apply aloe vera gel or cream to soothe the skin
  • Use an antibiotic ointment and loose gauze to protect the affected area 
You can generally treat a second-degree burn by:
  • Running the skin under cool water for 15 minutes or longer
  • Taking over-the-counter pain medication (acetaminophen or ibuprofen)
  • Applying antibiotic cream to blisters 
However, seek emergency medical treatment if burns affect a widespread area of the:
  • face
  • hands
  • buttocks
  • groin
  • feet 
For third-degree burns, call 911 immediately. While you’re waiting for medical treatment, raise the injury above your heart. Don’t get undressed, but make sure no clothing is stuck to the burn. There is no set healing timeline for third-degree burns.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.