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Life-saving advice on first aid for burns

Pain isn’t always the most reliable indicator of the severity of a burn. Different types of burns are classified according to depth and size. Here, we focus on depth since size is best determined by a medical professional.

1. Superficial burn

When only the epidermis or outer layer of skin is burnt, the skin will be red and painful. This is usually the least serious type of burn and such injuries can heal within 6 days without scarring. Sunburn is a minor burn that can be included in this category.


  • Clean the burn. Remove any clothing that may be invading the burn area and then wash the area with cool water and plain soap. If clothes are sticking to the area, go to an emergency room.
  • Cool the burn. Once the skin has been cleaned, you can place a cool cloth on the burn or soak the skin in cool water.
  • Apply a Burnshield® dressing or cooling gel.
  • Don’t use ice or fats (such as butter and oil) as these could worsen the injury.

2. Superficial partial-thickness burn

The burn affects the top 2 layers of skin, but does not go deep into the second layer. The skin will have a red, splotchy appearance, will leak fluid and there might also be blistering. Healing time can take between 7 and 21 days. There might be some skin discoloration and/or scarring.


  • Don’t break blisters since they become vulnerable to infection.
  • Cover the blisters with a sterile, non-stick dressing and apply an aloe vera gel or cream or antibiotic cream. Change the dressing at least once a day.
  • Treat pain with over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen and try to keep the burnt part of your body elevated above your heart. This slows the blood to that area and reduces swelling and pain.

3. Deep partial-thickness burn

While this burn also affects the top 2 layers of skin, it’s deeper than a superficial partial-thickness burn. The burn will hurt if you apply pressure to the area, but it won’t turn white. There will be blistering and scarring and it will take more than 21 days to heal.


  • Go to a hospital immediately since these burns can be life-threatening. Emergency treatment will prevent dehydration and shock.
  • Physical therapy might be necessary if the burn involves a joint and movement is impaired or restricted in some way.

4. Full-thickness burn

This is the most severe burn since all the layers of skin are compromised. Often fat, muscle and bone are also affected. There is usually no pain due to nerve damage and the skin appears white, grey or black.


  • Surgery is usually recommended for this kind of injury.
  • In-hospital stay is required to facilitate recovery and the administering of medication.

5. Chemical burn

Injury from chemical burns can be caused by a range of corrosive reactions, including a change in alkalinity or acidity, damage to cellular membranes and the direct toxic effects on metabolic processes. All chemical burns should be considered a medical emergency since the severity can be deceptive. The duration of exposure and the substance or agent also needs to be factored in to determine severity.


  • A medical professional must assess all chemical burns.
  • Douse the area with water to remove any traces of the chemical. Apply only water to avoid starting a chemical reaction that could cause more damage.
  • Remove clothing that has come into contact with the chemical.

6. Electrical burn

Electrical burns can occur from contact with household current, lightning and stun guns. The seriousness of the injury depends on the pathway of the current, resistance through the tissues, and the strength and duration of the current. While injuries may seem minimal, this kind of burn should be treated as a medical emergency.


  • Go directly to a hospital or call a paramedic.
  • CPR should only be administered if the person is not breathing and you know how to do it.

Burn prevention

Here are a few steps you can take to minimise the risk of burns: 

  • Use sunscreen if you’re going to be in the sun.
  • Keep children away from candles, matches, lighters and combustibles, as well as heaters, stoves, fireplaces and ovens.
  • Hot objects such as pots and pans that contain boiling or hot liquids should be handled with extreme care and should be positioned where they can’t do harm.
  • Store flammable substances in a locked cupboard and make sure they are in their original containers that list all the ingredients and emergency procedures.
  • Install smoke detectors in every room and regularly check the batteries.
  • Cotton clothes are always a good choice. Avoid clothes that could catch fire easily, especially at night.
  • Cover car seats and seatbelts with a cloth if your car is outside in the sun.

When to see a healthcare professional

If you aren’t sure how bad the burn is, consult a doctor or nurse immediately. People younger than 5 years or older than 70 years as well as people with a weakened immune system should always see a medical professional. You should also consult your doctor or nurse when the burn:

  • Involves your face, hands, feet or genitals
  • Is on or near a joint, such as your knee or shoulder
  • Goes all the way around a part of your body, such as your arm or leg
  • Is larger than 7cm across or goes deep into the skin
  • Causes a fever of at least 38°C or shows other signs of infection
  • Goes deeper than the top layer of skin and you haven’t had a tetanus shot in more than 5 years

Life Healthcare paramedic service employs paramedics in fully equipped response cars and offers free emergency paramedic assistance to their communities. There is only a cost if an ambulance is dispatched. 

In addition, emergency units are located at 41 Life Healthcare hospitals and offer emergency medical services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Life Cosmos Hospital recently opened a new burns unit – the first of its kind for the Life Healthcare Group and the first for Mpumalanga – which is able to handle all categories of burns.

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.