What to Do If You Get a Burn

A woman receives treatment for a burn at the emergency room.
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An accidental burn can happen just about anywhere. Being prepared so you can protect yourself and your family from the harmful rays of the sun — and potential hazards around the house — is a good first step. After that, it’s about recognizing the signs of a major versus minor burn and knowing how to best react.

Read on to learn how to prevent and treat common kinds of burns.


A sunburn happens when the top layer of your skin is exposed to excessive UVB rays from the sun, causing it to redden and blister. Though it’s a common misconception that only people with certain skin types and colors can get sunburned, in truth it can happen to anyone. Being prepared (or knowing what to do when you’re caught unprepared) can go a long way toward helping you avoid sunburn:

  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher at least 15 minutes before exposure
  • Always wear sunglasses that offer UV protection
  • Buy fresh sunscreen every year, and pay attention to the expiration date
  • Choose a water-resistant sunscreen that protects you from both UVA and UVB rays
  • Find shade whenever you can
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating
  • Try to avoid the sun during its strongest hours of 10 am and 2 pm
  • Use lip balm with SPF of 15 or more

While you mostly have to suffer through sunburn until it’s healed, there are some ways to soothe your angry skin, such as:

  • Be sure to resist popping any blisters that form
  • Drink enough water
  • Frequently apply a moisturizer with aloe vera or soy
  • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and discomfort
  • Take cool baths or showers
  • Use over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream if moisturizer isn’t enough
  • Wear protective clothing outdoors while your skin is healing

Other Types of Burns

Most often, cooking, bathing and electrical work are to blame for nasty burns. But beloved summer activities also add another layer of potential dangers. Raging campfires, sizzling grills, holiday fireworks and faulty lawn or outdoor equipment can also cause accidents resulting in burns, both minor and more serious.

While some burns will heal on their own with at-home care, others need attention from a health care professional. You should seek immediate care for burns that are:

  • “Charred” in appearance
  • Deep
  • Dry and leathery in appearance
  • Followed by patches of white, brown or black skin
  • Larger than 3 inches in diameter
  • Located on the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint

After you’ve called 911 or are in the process of taking a burned person to a health care facility, you should:

  • Remove the source of the burn from the vicinity
  • Check for breathing (if not, start CPR immediately)
  • Cover the burn with a cool, moist bandage or a cool, clean cloth
  • Elevate the burned area above heart level, if possible
  • Remove any restrictive items (like jewelry or belts) from the burned area since burns swell quickly

It’s a common misconception that first aid for major burns should include immersing the burned area in water to clean it and to help alleviate pain. This “home remedy” can cause a dangerous loss of body heat. Avoid immersing any serious burn in water.

Minor burns can be treated at home. Here are some best practices:

  • Apply a cool, wet compress (clean cloth or sterile bandage) until the pain subsides
  • Avoid popping any blisters that form
  • Frequently apply a moisturizer with aloe vera or soy
  • Remove any restrictive items (like jewelry or belts) from the burned area since burns swell quickly
  • Take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and discomfort
  • Use a sterile gauze bandage to protect the burn

If you’re unsure if a burn is serious enough to require medical attention, it’s best to be safe and visit an urgent care location or emergency room near you.

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