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When should you get a burn seen by a doctor?

Burns are common injuries that can happen in a variety of ways, from minor kitchen mishaps to serious accidents. While many minor burns can be safely treated at home, more severe burns require prompt medical attention to prevent complications and long-term effects.

What are the different types of burns?

Burns are classified by severity into first, second, and third degree burns:

  • First degree burns affect only the outer layer of skin. They cause redness, pain, and swelling.
  • Second degree burns go deeper into the skin, causing blistering, more intense pain, redness and swelling.
  • Third degree burns penetrate the full thickness of the skin, damaging nerves and tissues underneath. They may appear white or charred.

In addition to depth, burns are also categorized by the source of the burn:

  • Thermal burns from heat sources like fire, scalding liquids, steam, or hot surfaces
  • Chemical burns from acids, bases, or other caustic substances
  • Electrical burns from contact with electricity
  • Radiation burns from prolonged exposure to the sun or other radiation
  • Friction burns from rubbing against a surface

When should you seek emergency care for a burn?

You should go to the emergency room or call 911 if the burn:

  • Covers an area larger than 3 inches (or larger than the size of the palm)
  • Appears white, charred, or leathery
  • Causes difficulty breathing or other signs of airway damage
  • Involves the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks, or a major joint
  • Was caused by chemicals, electricity, or inhaled smoke
  • Causes severe pain that is not relieved by over-the-counter medication
  • Develops red streaks coming from the wound site
  • Causes a fever above 101 F

These types of major burns require immediate medical care to prevent complications like infection, fluid loss, and scarring. Emergency personnel can provide pain medication, treat shock, and prevent further damage.

When should you call your doctor about a burn?

You should make an appointment to see your doctor promptly if the burn:

  • Covers an area between 1-3 inches wide
  • Blisters appear
  • Is located on the face, hands, feet, groin, or over a joint
  • Shows signs of infection like increasing pain, swelling, redness, pus, or fever
  • Does not heal within 2 weeks

For burns in sensitive areas or partial thickness burns, your doctor can provide antibiotics to prevent infection, recommend specialized dressings and wound care, assess the depth and severity, and determine if skin grafting is needed.

When can you treat a minor burn at home?

You can safely treat first degree or superficial second degree burns at home if they meet the following criteria:

  • Are smaller than 3 inches wide
  • Do not blister
  • Are not located on the face, hands, feet, groin or over joints
  • Do not show signs of infection
  • Heal within 2 weeks

To care for a minor burn:

  • Run cool (not cold) water over the burn for 10-15 minutes.
  • Clean with mild soap and water.
  • Apply aloe vera or moisturizer to soothe pain and inflammation.
  • Cover loosely with a sterile bandage.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication if needed.
  • Watch for signs of infection like increasing redness, swelling, pus, fever.

How are burns diagnosed?

To assess the severity of a burn, doctors will examine:

  • Location – Burns on the face, hands, feet and genitals are more concerning.
  • Size – Larger burns require more medical care.
  • Depth – First vs second vs third degree.
  • Cause – Chemical and electrical burns can cause additional internal damage.
  • Symptoms – Level of pain, blistering, color changes and more provide clues.

They may also test sensation in the area, examine wound appearance, and take a biopsy to examine burned skin under a microscope. Imaging tests like x-rays, CT scans or MRIs can check for damage beneath the skin.

How are burns treated?

Burn treatment depends on the severity and may include:

  • Fluids and Medications – IV fluids and electrolytes are given for dehydration. Medications can include antibiotics, pain relievers, and tetanus immunization.
  • Debridement – Dead tissue is removed to prevent infection.
  • Wound Care – Burnt skin is gently cleaned and treated with dressings, ointments and skin grafts.
  • Surgery – Skin grafts, wound excisions or scar release procedures may be required.
  • Rehabilitation – Physical therapy helps restore function after serious burns.

What complications can happen with burns?

Potential complications of serious burns include:

  • Infection – High risk with open wounds.
  • Scarring/Contractures – Skin and tissue thickening impairs movement.
  • Fluid Loss – Severe fluid loss through burned skin can cause shock.
  • Hypothermia – Difficulty regulating body temperature.
  • Respiratory problems – Smoke inhalation or airway burns.
  • Chronic pain – Nerve damage may cause lasting pain.

How can burns be prevented?

You can reduce your risk of burns by taking these precautions:

  • Keep space heaters away from flammable objects.
  • Check water temperature before bathing/showering.
  • Use oven mitts when handling hot dishes.
  • Turn pot handles inward on the stove.
  • Allow foods to cool before eating.
  • Unplug appliances like irons when not in use.
  • Have a fire extinguisher and smoke detectors in your home.
  • Always supervise children around fires, stoves, heaters etc.


Knowing when to seek emergency care, call your doctor, or treat a burn at home can mean the difference between a fast recovery and serious health consequences. Minor burns can often be safely managed at home, but deeper burns in sensitive areas require specialized medical treatment to reduce scarring, deformity, infections and other complications. If in doubt, it’s always best to seek professional medical advice.