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What is a first-degree burn?

First-degree burns are a common and painful household occurrence, especially for children and older adults. They often happen when someone touches something hot, such as a stove, curling iron, or hair straightener.

Staying out in the sun too long without sunscreen or other forms of protection is also a frequent cause of first-degree burns. Researchers report, however, that 80 percent of burns affecting young children are due to accidental scalding with hot liquids or objects.

What are the symptoms?

first degree burn
Generally, first-degree burns do not break the skin.

Most first-degree burns are not very big, and usually present as a red, dry area of skin.

Typically, first-degree burns do not break the skin or cause blisters to form.

The best-known and most common symptom of a first-degree burn is red skin.

Other symptoms include:

  • pain
  • soreness in the burned area, which lasts for 2 –3 days
  • skin that may be warm to the touch
  • swelling
  • dry skin
  • peeling
  • itching
  • a temporary change in skin color caused by peeling

Definition of a first-degree burn

Doctors define first-degree burns as superficial burns because they only affect the top layer of the skin.

First-degree burns vary from more severe burns in that they do not penetrate deep into the skin and other tissues.

Other burns have the following characteristics:

  • Second degree burns: These burns go through the epidermis and reach the top of the second layer of the skin, which is known as the dermis. These burns are more likely to blister and are generally more painful and swollen.
  • Third-degree burns: This type of burn penetrates the first and second layers of skin to the third and lowest level of the skin, known as the hypodermis. With these deeper burns, the affected area may appear white, like the surface of a burned piece of charcoal.
  • Fourth-degree burns: This type of burn goes through all three layers of the skin and damages the muscle, bone, nerves, and fat that is lying underneath. There is no pain with fourth-degree burns because damage to the nerves prevents any feeling.

Treating first-degree burns at home

Home treatment is the most common way to treat a first-degree burn.

Even though most first-degree burns do not require treatment by a medical professional, it is still crucial to treat these injuries carefully.

Make sure to keep the wounds clean, protected, and free of infection.

Home remedies

mother applying bandage to sons arm
Protect the burned area with a non-stick bandage.

Steps for treating a first-degree burn at home:

  • Remove clothing, watches, rings, and other jewelry near or covering the surrounding burned area.
  • Plunge the burned area into cool (not ice cold) water right away, and keep it there for about 10 minutes. If it is not possible to submerge the burned area in water, then apply cold, wet compresses to the area until the pain subsides. Never apply ice directly to a burn.
  • Gently clean the burned area with mild soap and water.
  • The American Academy of Dermatology recommend applying petroleum jelly to the burn every 8 to 12 hours. Do not use butter or toothpaste on a first-degree burn, because this can increase the risk of infection and prevent healing.
  • Keep the burned area covered with a non-stick bandage. Change the dressing three times a week, as long as there is no infection. If the burn seems infected, change the bandage every day.
  • Do not pop any blisters that may develop as this can increase the risk of infection and scarring.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.

If the burn does not show signs of healing within 48 hours, or if it seems to be getting worse, seek prompt medical care.

When to see a doctor

Most of the time, first-degree burns do not require medical attention.

However, seek medical care immediately if:

  • The burned area is larger than the palm of the person’s hand.
  • The person with the burn is a young child or an older adult.
  • The burn completely encircles an ankle, wrist, finger, toe, or another body part.
  • The burn is accompanied by a fever or pain and redness that do not respond to OTC pain relievers.
  • The burn looks like it may affect more than the top layer of the skin.
  • The burn looks infected, with redness extending beyond the burned area.

Any time the skin is damaged, even if the injury is a small scratch or a mild sunburn, the body cannot defend itself against infection as well as it usually can.

Always pay close attention to first-degree burns and watch for signs of possible infection, such as:

  • increased swelling and tenderness
  • a red streak leaving the burned area
  • the burn begins to drain yellow or green liquid
  • a change in the color and general appearance of the burned area

How long does it take to recover?

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences say it takes about a week for a first-degree burn to heal. Other experts say it usually takes 5 to 10 days for an individual to recover from a first-degree burn.

Preventing scarring

Scarring is not usually a problem with a first-degree burn.

Scars only form when the lower layer of the skin is damaged, and first-degree burns do not usually penetrate that far into the skin. They also tend to heal in less than 10 days, and, according to the Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors, burns which heal that rapidly do not usually leave scars.

However, always take extra care with sensitive, damaged skin. If skin in the affected area begins to peel, leave it to shed naturally, as pulling it off might be painful and cause scarring.


man scratching sunburn
Itching skin can indicate the burned area is healing.

Most first-degree burns heal entirely within 10 days.

Some people may find that the healed skin may be darker or lighter in color than the skin in other areas.

Sometimes, the burned area can itch during recovery. Although the itching might be uncomfortable, it is a regular part of healing. Skin moisturizers and OTC antihistamines, such as Benadryl, can help reduce the discomfort.

Minimizing exposure to direct sunlight and following standard sun safety practices can help prevent further damage to the skin.

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