How to Perform First Aid Treatment for Thermal Burns

An open wound of woman's hand with thermal burn of second

A certain degree of caution is still needed even in simple household chores. Cooking, ironing fabric, or preparing a hot water bath can become a dreadful moment. As safe as you try to be, the risk of accidents is high in the presence of heat. 

When the skin touches a hot surface, an open fire, or steam, there is a formation of burns in the exposed area of the skin. These identify as thermal burns.

Other burns, such as chemical and electrical burns, can also occur under different circumstances. 

While not always critical, thermal burns still need immediate treatment. First-aid treatment of thermal burns ensures there will be no complications. At home or work, it is important to learn how to apply the first-aid treatment on thermal burns. 

In other cases, when severe burns occur you need to call on emergency help immediately.

What are Thermal Burns?

arms that have thermal burns

Thermal burns are injuries to the skin caused by an external heat source. This heat source could be anything– an open fire from a stove, hot and melted liquid, and steam. Super hot surfaces like cooking pans and the oven can also cause thermal burns.

The effects of thermal burns vary, depending on a few factors. These factors include the temperature of the heat source and the length of exposure to the heat source.

What causes Thermal Burns?

Boiling water Thermal burns can stem from anything that has a temperature of 51°C or 123.8°F. This is a general fact. But, there are also a lot of scientific circumstances that can cause thermal burns.

Aside from the temperature, the length of exposure to the heat also determines the burn.

Here is a quick rundown for your reference:

  • Anything below 44°C (111.2°F) – safe and cannot cause burns
  • Exactly 44°C (111.2°F) or above – there is an occurrence of tissue damage but only after a 6-hour exposure to the heat source
  • Anything above 44°C (111.2°F) but below 51°C (131°F) – thermal injuries double with a degree increase in temperature
  • Anything above 51°C (131°F) – immediate damage to the epidermis or the top layer of skin
  • Above 70°C (158°F) – full-thickness injuries (known before as third-degree burns) can occur in seconds

The most common causes of thermal burns at home are:

  • Cooking
  • Handling hot food and beverages
  • Using the microwave oven
  • Preparing hot water for a bath or using the water heater thermostat
  • Ironing clothes

Ginseng chicken soup

In the workplace there is a more diverse range of items and situations that can cause thermal burns, like:

  • In the food and beverage industry, thermal burns can arise from a range of sources. These burns can develop from boiling liquids, steam, or direct contact with an open flame.
  • In industrial and manufacturing settings, there are even more possibilities for thermal burns. Steam, molten liquids, and fire can cause serious thermal burns.

Risk Factors

crying Japanese girl

Thermal burns can happen to anyone. But, some individuals are at an especially higher risk of experiencing these burns.

  • Young children

Compared to adults, children have thinner skin. This is why injuries they sustain from accidents like simple burns end up being more serious. A cup of hot coffee that spills on them can burn a large percentage of their tiny figure. 

The biological development of kids also makes them more susceptible to thermal burns. Kids tend to be less in control of their environment. Their lack of awareness of any kind of danger that can happen to them contributes to their injuries. Their inability to get out of an unsafe situation on their own also plays a part in this. 

  • Older adults

Like young children, older adults share the same characteristic of having thin skin.  This happens due to factors related to age like sun exposure and the use of certain medications. Because of this, a brief contact with a hot surface can easily lead to deeper burns.  

Age-related concerns also make older adults more prone to these burn-causing incidents. Their ability to feel heat may have declined as an effect of a medical condition. A weakened skeletal system can also contribute to these burns. Older people are more susceptible to falls and slips while taking a bath. This can cause them to sustain thermal burns in the process.

  • Persons with Disabilities or Special Needs

Some circumstances make certain people especially vulnerable in developing thermal burns. These may include physical, mental, and emotional challenges. These challenges hinder the individual from grasping the consequences of a situation.

Mobility issues like muscle fatigue and delayed reflexes can all contribute to burns. These risks could take a lot of forms. Spilling hot beverages and partaking in hot food while seated in a wheelchair are some of these risks. Carrying hot items while using a cane is also a scenario that can cause burns.

Sensory problems and mental health illnesses can also affect a person’s perception. Sometimes their ability to recognise if an object is hot is amiss. Thus, there is neglect for an appropriate response to the situation.

Different Types of Thermal Burns

The extent of damage to the skin is what classifies thermal burns. Signs and symptoms vary per type of thermal burn.

Superficial Burns (First-Degree Burns)

Wounded Hand first degree burn

Superficial burns are previously known as first-degree burns. Superficial burns are injuries that affect only the epidermis or the outer layer of the skin.

A thermal burn is superficial if it is warm, red, and painful. Moisture is evident in the affected area and turns white whenever pressed. Blisters are not present on the site of the burn.

Superficial thermal burns or of first-degree only take a short period to heal– about 3 to 6 days. Scarring will not be present once these burns have healed. This is because the burn only affects the top layer of the skin. But, the skin on the affected area can either turn lighter or darker permanently. 

Superficial Partial-Thickness Injuries (Mild Second-Degree Burns)

back with second degree burn

Superficial partial-thickness injuries from thermal burns are a type of second-degree burn. These burns cause damages to the epidermis and some parts of the dermis or the second layer of the skin.

A superficial partial-thickness thermal burn is painful and red. There is an occasional presence of blisters, yet body hair is still intact.  

It takes about 7 to 21 days for a superficial partial-thickness burn to heal. Once it heals, the discoloration can take place. The affected skin can either turn lighter or darker. There are no scars or other permanent results other than discoloration. 

Deep Partial-Thickness Injuries (Severe Second-Degree Burns)

severe second-degree burns with blisters

Deep partial-thickness injuries are a form of severe second-degree burns. These burns produce deep damage to the epidermis and the dermis.

The presence of pain and blisters characterises deep partial-thickness thermal burns.

The healing period for this type of thermal burns can take more than 21 days. Because the extent of damage is serious, scars can form on the affected area once healed.

Full Thickness Injuries (Third-Degree Burns)

Hand with a third degree burn after fire damage

Full-thickness injuries are previously recognized as third-degree burns. These burns show complete damage to the epidermis and the dermis.

Full-thickness thermal burns often appear white or charred. These burns are also not painful, as the burns ruined the nerve endings. Small blood vessels and hair follicles are also damaged. The burned area tends to be dry and leathery, as the sweat glands are also ruined.  

Cases of full-thickness burns must be immediately brought to the hospital. Any incident of this type of burn is a matter of medical emergency. These burns cannot heal on their terms. Full-thickness burn can only heal through treatment by cosmetic surgery.

You can expect severe scarring in this kind of burn once it has healed.

Fourth-Degree Burns

fourth degree burn Fourth-degree burns are a severe kind of burn. This type of burn destroys all layers of the skin. Such burns can incur damages on the underlying tissues, bones, joints, and even muscles.

Fourth-degree burns often look charred. In some cases, bones are even exposed. The sensation of pain is not present, as the dermis is completely damaged. The dermis is where the nerve endings are located. 

Any incident of fourth-degree burns must be instantly taken to the hospital. The severity of the damage brought about by this kind of burn classifies it as a medical emergency. Curing these burns may take surgery.

Furthermore, patients who have acquired fourth-degree burns can fall into shock. This stems from the body’s inflammatory response which triggers large fluid circulation. When this happens, the body’s blood pressure and blood volume levels drop. These are what cause hypovolemia and hypothermia. 

At this point, major organs like the heart, lungs, brain, and kidney are at high risk of failing to perform.

Signs and Symptoms

Severe burns on leg Signs and symptoms vary depending on the type of burn. The most visible signs of thermal burns include:

  • Redness of the burned area
  • A sensation of pain for mild to moderate types of burns
  • Presence of blisters
  • Thickening of the skin in more severe cases
  • A white or charred leathery appearance for severe burns
  • Numbness of feeling in extreme cases

Things to note

Thermal burns can be ultra-sensitive. If deep enough, it can get infected before you know it. Keep in mind the things that you should not do when you or someone with you gets thermal burns.

Don’t apply ice

Ice cubes It seems like common sense to apply ice directly to the site of a burn. But, contrary to popular belief, the application of ice or ice water on the burned area is a bad idea. Doing so can create further damage to the tissue, actually making things worse.

Don’t apply toothpaste

Toothpaste squeezed out from a toothpaste tube Toothpaste as a home remedy for mild burns is a tale as old as time. For years, promoting the use of toothpaste to soothe burns continues. Unfortunately, this is a myth. Doctors and medical experts have refuted the application of toothpaste on burns. Doing so can only seal in the heat and the bad bacteria, leading to irritation and infections.

Don’t apply home remedies

olive oil Aside from toothpaste, there are other items on the list. These are popular home remedies believed to be helpful in alleviating burns.

Butter, coconut and olive oils, egg whites, and mud are not safe for use when it comes to burns. While these home remedies are well-known, they are not helpful. Medical and health experts have stated that these remedies do not pass as a first-aid treatment for burns. Instead, using these items can only lead to the development of complications. 

Butter, oils, and other greasy stuff only trap in the heat. This can result in the delayed release of the heat from the skin, causing infection. 

Egg whites are also not helpful in this case. Eggs contain various types of bacteria, including salmonella. Putting these on a burn wound can only increase the chances of infection.

Don’t burst blisters

blisters on finger Picking on the blister present on the site of the burn is not a very good idea. This can lead to complications like infections. This can also form severe and excessive scarring once the burn has healed.

Treatments of Thermal Burns

a burn that is held on running water Cure for thermal burns depends on the type of burn that has occurred. Minor thermal burns like superficial and superficial partial-thickness burns are easy to handle. You can apply the first-aid treatment by yourself, and there is no need to call for emergency help in most cases. 

Here is how to administer first-aid treatment to minor burns.

  • Let the burn cool down. Do this by holding the affected area under cool, running water for 20 minutes. After this, you can apply a cool, wet compress. This helps in alleviating the pain. 
  • Try to remove obstructing items that could infect the burn wound. This may include clothing or jewelry.
  • If the burn has blisters, do not break it. If a blister breaks accidentally, clean the area. Then, apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin over it.
  • Once the area has cooled, put a moisturising lotion on it. Use a lotion that has ingredients like aloe vera. This can provide relief for the burn. Moreover, the lotion keeps the wound moist, making it heal faster.
  • Put a bandage on the burn, but make sure that the bandage is only loosely wrapped around the burned area. Refrain from using cotton as these can only end up getting stuck on the healing area. 
  • Take pain relievers like ibuprofen if the sensation of the burn is unbearable.

Immediate medical treatment is generally not necessary for cases of mild burns. But, there are incidents of mild burns that fall under special cases. These cases need immediate care. Such circumstances include:

  • If the burn appears larger than three inches
  • If the burn occurs on the face, extremities like hands and feet, sensitive areas like groin and buttocks, an integral body part like spine, or any major joint like the shoulders
  • If the burn wound starts to smell
  • If you have not taken your tetanus shot in the last 5 years

thermal burn of second degree injury of skin For major burns, the first thing you should do is to call emergency services. While waiting for help to arrive, here is what you can do:

  • Place the person in a safe location and a comfortable position. 
  • Observe their breathing. If it appears that they have difficulty doing so, perform rescue breathing if you know how to.
  • Remove items that restrict access to the burn, such as jewelry or other accessories. Doing so prevents infection and swelling. Remove clothing that touches the burned areas. But refrain from pulling it out once it has already stuck to the skin.
  •  A victim of severe burns can suffer a serious case of hypothermia, the extreme loss of body heat. Make sure that you cover them with a blanket. This reduces their risk of falling to shock. But, be careful not to touch the burned areas. 
  • Try to put the burned area in an elevated position, at least above the level of the heart. 
  • If the burn occurs in the face, make them sit up.
  • Watch the victim and observe for signs of shock. Check their pulse and breathing every 5 minutes or so until help comes.  

Only medical experts can provide treatment and healing to severe thermal burns cases. Treatment usually comes in the form of: 

  • Skin replacement or grafting
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Pain management
  • Occupational therapy for extremities that burns have affected

Prevention for Thermal Burns

It is better to apply an extra layer of protection. Prevent situations that can lead to thermal burns as much as possible.

At home, there are a lot of opportunities for accidents that could result in thermal burns. Here are some of what you can do to prevent these unexpected events:

  • Regulate water temperature.

Make sure that your water heater thermostat is set below 48.9°C (120°F). To be safe, set your bath water to around 38°C (100°F). Always test the water first with your hand before going in, especially if the bath is for a kid. 

  • Taste the food with caution.

If you are cooking and need to taste the food, make sure to let the food cool down a bit before putting it into your mouth. This so that you don’t get your tongue or lips burned in the process. Heating food using the microwave oven can often result in unequal heat distribution to the food. Proceed with caution and check the food first before you eat it.

  • Avoid hot spills as much as possible. 

If you are with a child, place hot foods and beverages far away from the edges of the table. Avoid using tablecloths or table placements that your child can pull down. Don’t handle hot drinks if you are carrying a child

  • Unplug appliances when not in use. 

Ensure that you can unplug the iron and other appliances after each use. For extra precaution, keep these out of children’s reach.

  • Take precautionary measures for electrical outlets and cords.

If possible, install safety caps on all your outlets. Make it a point to replace damaged or frayed electrical cords as these could spark fires. Keep electrical cords and wires from younger children, so they don’t start chewing on them. 

  • Establish “no entry” zones for your kids.

Keep the kitchen inaccessible to children. Do the same for other areas of the house that contain appliances.

  • Keep potential firestarters inside a safe and dry place. 

Store flammable liquids and other items in a dry cabinet at room temperature. These items include lighters, matches, and aerosol cans. The cabinet must be at a location that is off-limits to children.

  • Deal with candles and cigarettes with caution.

Put out a lighted candle before you exit a room, as leaving it unsupervised can cause accidental burns. Make sure that the flame is out before you throw cigarette butts away. Smoke outside the house as much as possible.

  • Avoid playing with fireworks.

While it can be a lot of fun, lighting fireworks can lead to some uncalled-for incidents. If you do not know how to operate fireworks, it is best to refrain from engaging in the activity altogether.

  • Keep a fire extinguisher in an easy access area in case of an emergency.

If a fire breaks out inside your home, using a fire extinguisher can prevent further injuries. Extra damage to your household is also avoided. 

workplace, the possibility of thermal burns occurring to someone is huge. Rule compliance should always be strictly followed because of these occupational hazards.

  • Keep flammable and combustible materials away from open flames.
  • Sweep debris so that it doesn’t get collected in your work area. 
  • Require the wearing of personal protective clothing. Make this a standard, even if not handling flammable and combustible materials.
  • Refrain from touching surfaces, objects, and equipment if you are uncertain that it is hot. If you need to handle or touch the object or operate the equipment, do this with discretion. Make sure that you are wearing the appropriate thick gloves.
  • Establish first-aid stations for use in the event of an emergency. A quick response treatment to accidents stops the development of further injuries.

Frequently Asked Questions

A thermal burn is a skin injury resulting from contact with any hot surface or object. Thermal burns are a common type of burn, and the risk of experiencing it daily can be high.

Thermal burns are often caused by daily activities that involve heat. At home, this can include a range of actions. cooking preparing food with the use of microwave oven handling hot food like soup drinking hot beverages like coffee or tea preparing hot water baths ironing clothes.

In the workplace, there are simultaneous activities taking place. That busy ecosystem can contribute to accidents. Activities like handling hot and melted liquid, and working with steam and hot objects can sustain thermal burns.

Preventing thermal burns requires a strong sense of discipline. It also demands important knowledge of what can cause these burns in any setting. Pay important attention to objects, surfaces, and appliances that emit heat. Work your way from that. Make sure that each item is being dealt with with extra caution. Wearing and using protective clothing prevents you from acquiring thermal burns.

The healing period of thermal burns depends on the severity of the burns. Minor burns heal fast. Superficial burns heal after 3 to 6 days. Superficial partial-thickness burns only take 7 to 21 days to heal. Major burns take longer to heal. The healing period of deep partial-thickness burns takes more than 21 days. There is no telling how long it will take for full-thickness and fourth-degree burns to heal.

The general belief that burns and wounds should be dry to heal is not necessarily true. Research shows that wounds heal faster when they are moist.

Applying toothpaste on thermal burns to soothe the pain is not encouraged by medical experts. Studies show that this is a huge myth. Doing so can only trap the heat into the skin, causing infections and irritation in the affected area.

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