Burns & Scalds – Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Burns and scalds are damage to the skin usually caused by heat. A burn is caused by dry heat, such as an iron or fire, where as a scald is caused by something that is wet, such as hot water or steam. Despite this difference, they are treated in the same way. 

Burns can be extremely painful including:

  • red or peeling skin
  • blisters
  • swelling
  • white or charred skin

It is important to note that the amount of pain felt is not always related to how serious the burn is. Sometimes a very serious burn could be relatively painless, whereas a mild burn could be very painful.

The severity of a burn is assessed by how serious your skin is damaged and which layers of skin are affected. Your skin has 3 layers to it:

  • the epidermis – the outer layer of skin
  • the dermis – the layer of tissue just beneath, which contains blood capillaries, nerve endings, sweat glands and hair follicles
  • the subcutaneous fat, or subcutis – the deeper layer of fat and tissue

The 4 main types of burn, tend to have a different appearance and different symptoms:

  • superficial epidermal burn – when the epidermis is damaged; your skin will be red, slightly swollen and painful, but not blistered
  • superficial dermal burn – where the epidermis and part of the dermis are damaged; your skin will be pale pink and painful, and there may be small blisters
  • deep dermal or partial thickness burn – where the epidermis and the dermis are damaged; this type of burn makes your skin turn red and blotchy; your skin may be dry or moist and become swollen and blistered, and it may be very painful or painless
  • full thickness burn – where all 3 layers of skin are damaged; the skin is often burnt away and the tissue underneath may appear pale or blackened, while the remaining skin will be dry and white, brown or black with no blisters, and the texture of the skin may also be leathery or waxy


  • get yourself or the person away from the heat source immediately
  • cool the burn with cool or lukewarm running water for 20 minutes – do not use ice, iced water, or any creams or greasy substances like butter
  • remove any clothing or jewellery that’s near the burnt area of skin, but do not move anything that’s stuck to the skin
  • make sure you or the person keep warm by using a blanket, but take care not to rub it against the burnt area
  • cover the burn by placing a layer of cling film over it – a clean plastic bag could also be used for burns on your hand
  • use painkillers to treat any pain
  • if the face or eyes are burnt, sit up as much as possible, rather than lying down – this helps to reduce swelling
  • if it’s an acid or chemical, dial 999, carefully try to remove the chemical and any contaminated clothing, and rinse the affected area using as much clean water as possible

Treat at home or seek medical attention?

For minor burns, you should be able to treat effectively at home – keep the burn clean and do not burst any blisters that form.  For more serious burns, you may require professional medical attention. If you are unsure call 111 and get some advice. 

You should go to a hospital A&E department for:

  • all chemical and electrical burns
  • large or deep burns – any burn bigger than a person’s hand
  • burns that cause white or charred skin – any size
  • burns on the face, hands, arms, feet, legs or genitals that cause blisters
  • anyone that has breathed in smoke or fumes

Some long term symptoms may include:

  • coughing
  • a sore throat
  • difficulty breathing
  • facial burns

People at greater risk from the effects of burns, such as children under 5 years old and pregnant women, should also get medical attention after a burn or scald. The size and depth of the burn will be assessed and the affected area cleaned before a dressing is applied. In severe cases, skin graft surgery may be recommended.

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