Your hand accidentally grazes a hot pan, or you spill steamy soup on yourself. Trying to soothe the pain with a home remedy such as butter or ice may be unwise.
“If you choose the wrong do-it-yourself treatment, you can increase the risk of worsening the burn, upping chances of infection and scarring,” explains Eunice M. Singletary, a clinical associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville.
Here’s what you need to know to safely and effectively treat burns at home — and when to seek emergency help:
● Cool it and check it. Remove any clothing and jewelry on or near the burn, and immerse the affected area in cool water for 15 to 20 minutes. That dissipates heat, reduces pain and minimizes swelling around the burn, says Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Then check the burn to determine whether you need to call 911. For more about that, see “When to get medical help,” below.
● Don’t apply ice. It slows blood flow to the area and can damage tissue further.
● Protect the burn. Clean it gently with soap and water, then cover it with a nonstick gauze bandage. A piece of clean cotton material (not cotton balls) or kitchen cling wrap will also do.
● Don’t apply butter. The fat in butter will slow the release of heat from your skin, which can worsen a burn. (Ointments may act similarly.)
● Be wise about blisters. If a small blister forms a few hours after your injury, leave it alone. That natural bandage helps guard against infection.
But if the blister is bigger than your thumbnail, go to an urgent-care clinic or an emergency room. The burn may be deep enough to need a skin graft.
● Use pain products that work. If you’re uncomfortable, an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory pain reliever such as ibuprofen or naproxen will not only ease pain but also help reduce inflammation and aid healing, especially in the first 24 hours after burning yourself. Aloe vera gel may also help.
● Don’t put milk on the burn. Some people think that the fat and protein in milk helps promote healing, but that’s untrue. Milk can’t penetrate the skin, explains Gary Goldenberg, an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. In addition, bacteria in the milk could multiply and trigger a skin infection.
● Fight infection properly. Change the dressing daily until the burn heals. You can also dab on honey, which is anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, and contains fatty acids that help repair damage to skin, Piliang says. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Cutaneous and Aesthetic Surgery found that minor burns that were treated with honey healed faster than those treated with silver sulfadiazine cream, which is sometimes prescribed to help prevent infection.
● Don’t use antiseptic agents such as hydrogen peroxide and white vinegar, which can cause severe pain when applied to burned skin, Goldenberg says. The same holds true for toothpaste, which contains potentially irritating ingredients including calcium and peppermint. And skip OTC antibiotic creams for minor burns. Consumer Reports’ experts say they can contribute to the resistance of bacteria to antibiotics.
Call 911 if a burn extends deep into skin and blisters immediately (a third-degree burn) or goes through to muscle or bone (fourth-degree). Neither may cause pain.
First-degree burns affect only the top layer of skin; they’re red, and they whiten if pressed. Second-degree burns affect the top two layers; they’re red, seep fluid, often blister, and whiten if pressed. For either, call a doctor right away (or go to an ER if a doctor is unavailable) if the burn:
•Involves the face, fingers, feet, genitals or hands; is on or near a joint; encircles a body part; or is more than three inches in diameter.
•Happens to someone younger than 5 or older than 70.
•Seems infected (increasing redness, pain or a pus-like discharge or if injured person’s temperature is above 100.4 degrees).
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.