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What to do in case of burns

Von, science journalist
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Burns or scalds happen quickly. Whether it's a hot stove or boiling water - a brief moment of inattentiveness is often enough and you've burned yourself. What do you do in such a case? The answer to this depends largely on the extent of the injury. Read here how to provide first aid for burns of various degrees of severity and when you need a doctor.

Brief overview

  • What to do in case of burns Calm down the affected person, cool the burn with water, cover the wound with sterile covers, call an emergency doctor if necessary
  • Burns - Risks: Formation of unsightly scars, shock (especially with extensive burns), hypothermia (especially with extensive burns), wound infection, breathing problems (when inhaling hot smoke), etc.
  • When to the doctor For burns from grade 2; when the burned skin is numb, charred, or white; if you are not sure how severe the injury is.


  • Only 1st degree burns should be cooled under lukewarm running water. Cooling is generally not recommended for injuries that are more serious or affect more than 20 percent of the body surface. Otherwise there is a risk of hypothermia.
  • Children cool down particularly easily. Therefore, small burns or scalds on the trunk or head should not be cooled at all.
  • Do not use ice packs or ice packs to cool a minor burn. The cold could also damage the injured skin.
  • Never puncture burn blisters! This could contaminate the wound - even if you have previously (supposedly) sterilized needles or other instruments that you use to open them with a lighter or disinfectant.
  • Under no circumstances should you use household remedies such as olive oil, potatoes, onions, baking powder or ointments, powders or disinfectants in the event of burns! If used unauthorized, these can worsen the injury.

Burns: what to do

If you have burns or scalds, act quickly:

  • Eliminate the cause of the burn / scald. For example, turn off the heat or power source, take the pot of boiling water off the stove and put it out of reach, put out the fireplace, campfire or candle fire, take the person affected out of the sun or other danger zones such as yourself Accident car (provided you do not put yourself in danger!).
  • Calm down the victim. Burns and scalds are very painful and often cause anxiety and worry, especially in children.
  • Put on disposable gloves before treating burn wounds. This is how you protect yourself and those affected from infections.
  • If necessary, call the emergency doctor (see below: when to see a doctor?), Especially in the case of severe or larger burns.

Further first aid measures depend on how severe the injury is and whether it is a burn (from dry heat such as fire, hot objects or electricity) or scalds (from hot liquids or vapors etc.).

What helps with minor first-degree burns / scalds?

You can recognize a slight burn or scald (1st degree burn) by reddening and swelling of the skin; the affected area hurts but does not form blisters. This is what first aid looks like in the case of a slight, small scald / burn:

  • Scalding: Immediately remove clothing and any hot objects (such as jewelry) from your skin. Be careful not to burn yourself.
  • Burn: If the clothing does not adhere to the small burn, remove it carefully.
  • Immediately after its formation, cool the wound under running lukewarm water for a maximum of ten minutes. If the person becomes cold, stop cooling immediately. Caution: Only cool injuries on the arms and legs of children, not wounds on the head or trunk.
  • What you can also do against burns / scalds that are only superficial and do not form blisters: Cover the wound with a sterile or clean cover.
  • In addition, minor burns / scalds (without blistering) usually do not require any further special care. If the sunburn is mild, you can apply a cooling gel.

What to do with burns / scalds that are severe or extensive?

  • If the person's clothes are on fire: Extinguish the flames immediately with water or smother them under a blanket.
  • In the event of severe scalding, you should remove the clothing from the affected skin areas immediately. However, this is not advisable in the case of large burns: Here the clothing usually sticks to the skin. If you try to remove them, you usually injure the skin additionally.
  • If possible, cover the burn wounds with a sterile burn cloth or a sterile wound pad. To fix it, apply a loose bandage over it.
  • In the case of extensive burns, there is a risk that the person affected will become hypothermic and shock. What helps with such burns is to keep the person warm (for example with an aluminum blanket) and, if necessary, to bring them into a shock position (supine position with raised legs).
  • If the person is unconscious, check their pulse and breathing. If both are available, place him on his side in a stable position. If he is no longer breathing, you must start the resuscitation immediately! Continue this until the ambulance arrives or the patient is breathing alone again.

In the event of a burn injury from an open fire, the person concerned may have inhaled smoke and is now finding it difficult to breathe. Then you should let the person sit upright while you treat the burn. This usually makes it easier for him to breathe than lying down. Check the patient's breathing regularly during first aid!

Burns: Risks

Minor burns usually heal without consequences. In contrast, severe burns can leave scars.

In the case of severe burns / scalds with extensive injuries and possibly charred skin, there is an acute risk that the person concerned will become hypothermic because the body's heat regulation no longer works properly. Hypothermia (medical hypothermia) makes the circulation unstable, which can lead to coagulation disorders. There is also the risk that the person concerned will suffer a shock.

If the walls of blood vessels were damaged during the burn, fluid can leak into the tissue - a painful swelling develops.

In addition, open injuries such as burns are prone to infection: Because the skin barrier is no longer intact in the affected area, germs can easily penetrate.

If the person concerned has inhaled smoke, the mucous membranes can swell. This makes it difficult for him to breathe. Serious shortness of breath may develop.

Burns: When to See a Doctor?

You should only treat burns and scalds yourself if the injury is superficial (reddened, swollen, painful skin without blistering) that is only small. In the following cases, however, it is advisable or urgently necessary to seek medical help (call an emergency doctor if necessary !:

  • if the skin blisters
  • if two or more percent of the body surface is affected by the burn / scald
  • if you are unsure how serious the burn / scald is
  • when a burn becomes infected
  • for burns on a sensitive area (such as the face, genital area)
  • if the person has inhaled smoke
  • when the victim is unconscious
  • if the burned skin is numb, charred, or white (third degree burn)

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