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How to treat a burn

Learn the basics of burns and how best to treat them

A dad treats his toddler's injury with a bandage
A dad treats his toddler's injury with a bandage

Most of us have experienced a burn at some point, whether it’s a dry burn (from fire), a wet burn (from hot water or steam), a chemical burn, electrical burn or even a sunburn – we can all agree that even small burns can be incredibly painful.

But did you know burns are among the most serious injuries causing Aussies to be hospitalised? With 45% of burn cases caused by hot drinks, food and cooking oils, it’s essential that we know how to prevent and treat them.

We spoke with President of the Australian & New Zealand Burn Association (ANZBA), Jeremy Rawlins, to find out what constitutes a burn, common causes and which burn treatments are best.

What is a burn?

On a technical level, burns are a form of skin damage causing skin cells to die and results in blistering damage to variable layers of the skin. In more severe cases, it can also cause damage to the underlying muscles and bones.

“A burn is an injury usually caused by heat or flame that causes damage to the skin and, in severe cases, to deeper tissues too,” says Jeremy.

“Other causes of burns include hot liquids (scalds) – which are the most common cause of burns in children; chemicals (acids and alkalis); electrical injuries; radiation injuries; and cold injuries (frostbite).”

A middle-aged woman treats her husband's injury on his arm

What are the common causes of burns?

With so many different types of burns, there are many causes. However, the most common type of burn – scalds – can often be prevented by simply being cautious.

“The most common burn injuries in Australia are scalds injuries,” says Jeremy. “These are by far the most common injury we see in children and are usually caused by hot drinks and the kettle being accidentally spilt.”

“Scalds also occur in the bathroom when showers and baths are run too hot and children are left unsupervised. Scalds are common in adults too, again with hot water and hot oil scalds in the kitchen.”

It’s so easy to become complacent around hot water or oil – particularly when we use these liquids every single day – but Jeremy encourages us to consider these a potential hazard and remember the damage and injury they can cause.

Flammable items are another common cause of burns.

“Lighting BBQs and fire pits with petrol and other accelerants can cause ‘flash burns’ to the face and deeper burns to the limbs,” says Jeremy.

Jeremy also warns that motorbike burns from skin contact with exhaust pipes and from falling off a bike are reasonably common, while chemical, electrical, and radiation burns are relatively uncommon in Australia.

What’s the best way to treat a burn?

Even small burns require immediate care to avoid infection and permanent scarring – the sooner you treat them, the better.

“All burns should be treated with first aid,” says Jeremy. “This is the number-one thing that every Australian should know and it applies to all burns.”

“Whatever the cause, 20 minutes of cool running water applied as soon as possible after the burn has a massive impact in reducing the need for surgery (and reducing the potential for scars).

“Regardless of how big or small the burn is, every patient should have cool running water – about 15°C – for 20 minutes. This is best if it is immediately after the burn, but studies here in Australia have shown that it’s still useful up to three hours following burn injury.”

An infographic explaining how to treat burn

Should you use ice on a burn?

When we ask Jeremy about another common treatment – ice – it’s a very different story.

“Do not use ice – it will deepen the burn. After first aid, a dressing should be applied to keep the burn clean. Deep injuries will likely require surgery (skin grafting) to get them healed, however superficial burns that involve just the top layer of the skin should heal with dressings.”

How can you stop a minor burn from scarring?

We’re going to sound a little like Captain Obvious here, but the best way to avoid scarring is to avoid getting burnt – so stay vigilant when near hot surfaces, whether it’s in the kitchen, bathroom or on a motorbike.

If you do get burnt, follow the above directions for treatment and apply a silver-based dressing.

“Silver reduces the chance of infection in your burn,” says Jeremy. “If your burn is on your arm or leg, do everything you can to avoid swelling. Keep limbs elevated, avoid smoking, stay hydrated and eat well.”

“All of these things will help you to heal as quickly as possible – a burn that heals quickly usually equates to a minimal scar.”

If you have developed a mild scar from a burn, there are things you can do to help it fade – from scar massage and laser treatments to the use of oils such as vitamin E and Bio-Oil (although oils shouldn’t be used in the first few months following the burn).

20 minutes of cool running water applied as soon as possible after the burn has a massive impact

Should I go to hospital for a burn?

If you experience a less severe burn, you’ll likely be able to treat it with the first aid advice above. However, if the burn is more severe, it’s a good idea to head to hospital. The Australian Government’s healthdirect site advises to call an emergency ambulance if:

  • The burn is deep (even if it’s not painful)

  • It’s a burn of the airway, face, hands or genitals

  • The burnt skin looks leathery

  • The skin at the burn site has brown, black or white patches

  • It’s a chemical burn

  • It’s an electrical burn

  • It’s bigger than a 20c piece

  • The patient is having trouble breathing

If you do require an emergency ambulance, the last thing you need is to worry about how much it could cost. If you’re an nib member, you can rest easy knowing all of our policies come with unlimited emergency ambulance cover. Check out our article, How much does it cost to call an emergency ambulance in my state? for more.