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Quick Tips: Treating Burns

When you think of how you most often burn yourself, it's probably flames or something hot like the oven, a curling iron or your coffee. Yes, while it's true that exposure to fire and heat burns skin, these are not the only causes of burns. There are also electrical burns, which occur when sticking an object in an electrical outlet, chemical burns from ingesting or coming in contact with caustic materials, as well as radiation burns from the sun, tanning booths or cancer treatment.

About 450,000 Americans are treated for burn injuries each year (this doesn't include how many of us don't seek out medical treatment and use our best judgment at home) [source: American Burn Association]. Treating a burn varies depending on the type of burn.

First-degree burns and small second-degree burns are considered minor burns. These burns are the least severe type. First-degree burns affect only the top layer of skin (the epidermis), although they may cause swelling and pain in addition to the redness of the wounded area. Second-degree burns are deeper burns, involving not only the epidermis but the layer below it (the dermis), which means the wound may also affect hair follicles and sweat glands. Second-degree burns may be swollen and red, and they also are likely to blister and cause considerable pain.

To treat a minor burn at home, first remove any clothing from on or around the wound and place the burn under cool, running water for 10 to 15 minutes to help reduce swelling. Loosely wrap the wounded area in a clean gauze bandage and take over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin or ibuprofen to help ease swelling and pain. Applying aloe to a burn may also be helpful, because it keeps the wound moist, cools the burn and may also help prevent scarring after the burn has healed.

No matter how good you think it will feel, don't ice a burn -- extreme cold temperatures can cause more skin damage. Ointments or other home remedies such as butter or egg whites are not recommended, because they can encourage infection [source: Mayo Clinic].

While most first-degree and some second-degree burns can be treated at home, some minor burns should be seen by a doctor. The criteria are based on the size of the burn, where the burn is located and what caused the burn. A burn that is minor but large (a large burn is bigger than 3 inches in diameter) should be evaluated, as should burns on the face, hands, scalp, genitals or joint areas. Any burn that's an electrical or chemical burn, and any burn that has red streaking in or near the wound should be checked out.

Major burns, on the other hand, are an emergency and need immediate medical attention -- your first priority for a major burn is calling 911. Third-degree and fourth-degree (yes, there are burns more traumatic than third-degree) burns are major burns. Third-degree burns involve all layers of the skin and cause permanent damage to not only the skin but to tissue and nerves as well. Fourth-degree burns are the most severe and involve damage to all layers of skin, nerve tissue, muscles, ligaments, tendons and bone. Third and fourth-degree burns may appear black, brown or white, and are often painless because of nerve damage.

Keep the burned area above your heart (if that's possible) to help minimize swelling and to help slow the flow of blood to the wound while you seek emergency help.