First Aid for Burns

Burn injuries can be distressing, but knowing how to respond and when to seek immediate help can make a crucial difference. In this guide, we’ll break down the various types of burns and provide clear guidance on when to call 911 for a burn victim. You can learn more about burn management by taking a first aid course like the WorkSafeBC Occupational First Aid Level One

Understanding Burn Classification

Burns are categorized into three main types: first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree burns.

First-Degree Burns

These are typically mild and affect only the outer layer of the skin. They cause skin redness and pain, similar to sunburn or a minor scald. First-degree burns usually heal on their own within about a week.

Second-Degree Burns

Second-degree burns can be partial or full thickness. Partial-thickness burns cause pain and blistering, while full-thickness burns extend deeper and often require medical attention.

Third-Degree Burns

These are severe burns that damage the full thickness of the skin and underlying tissues. They may appear charred, dry, pale, or leathery, and they are usually not painful. Third-degree burns can lead to shock due to fluid loss.

Assessing Burn Extent

Estimating the extent of the burned area is crucial for determining the severity and need for medical attention. The Rule of Nines is a quick method for estimating the percentage of body surface burned:

  • Each upper extremity counts as 9%.
  • Head and neck together are 9%.
  • Each lower extremity is 18%.
  • The anterior and posterior surfaces of the trunk are each 18%.
  • The perineum and genitalia together are 1%.
  • A patient’s hand is roughly 1%.

When to Call 911 for a Burn Victim

Serious Burns Requiring Immediate Attention: Call 911 for the following types of burns:

  • Burns associated with smoke inhalation injury.
  • Second-degree burns affecting more than 10% of the body surface.
  • Third-degree burns affecting more than 2% of the body surface.
  • Burns involving the face, encircling a limb, hands, feet, or genitalia.
  • All electrical and chemical burns.

First Aid for Serious Burns

When you encounter a serious burn victim, follow these steps:

  1. Ensure Safety and Extinguish Flames: Prioritize safety by putting out any flames and removing the patient from the heat source.
  2. Remove Hot Clothing: Carefully eliminate clothing that is still smoldering or retaining heat.
  3. Check Airway and Respiration: Assess the patient’s airway and breathing, especially if there’s been exposure to smoke or hot gases.
  4. Monitor Circulation: Be vigilant for signs of fluid loss and circulation problems, particularly if the burn covers a large area.

Managing Major Burn Wounds

Proper wound management is essential for burn victims:

  1. Cool the Burn: Use cool water to cool the burn for up to 20 minutes (avoid ice).
  2. Remove Burned Clothing: Take off any clothing that is burned or contaminated.
  3. Elevate Burned Extremities: If feasible, elevate the burned extremities to reduce swelling and fluid loss. Do not splint unless there’s an obvious fracture or dislocation.
  4. Avoid Popping Blisters: Refrain from breaking blisters.
  5. Skip Creams and Ointments: Do not apply creams, ointments, or topical anaesthetics.
  6. Use Wet Dressings: Apply wet dressings to burns affecting less than 20% of the body surface. For larger burns, use clean sheets or dry dressings.
  7. Keep Patient Comfortable: Ensure the patient is comfortable and covered. Monitor the ABCs (Airway, Breathing, Circulation) during transportation.

Minor Burn Care

For minor burns like first-degree burns or small second-degree burns:

Cool with Water: Apply cold water compresses to the affected area, limiting it to 20% of the body surface at a time.

Cold Towels for the Trunk or Face: Use cold towels for burns on the trunk or face. Stop cooling if shivering occurs.

Chemical Burns

Chemical burns demand swift action:

Dilute and Remove the Chemical: Flush the affected area with water for at least 30 minutes. Remove contaminated clothing.

Estimate Burn Extent: Use the Rule of Nines to estimate burn extent.

Continue Flushing or Use Saline Dressings: Keep flushing or use saline-soaked dressings.

Electrical Burns

Electrical burns can be deceiving, as internal injuries may not be visible:

Ensure Safety: Turn off the electrical source and carefully remove the source of contact.

Assess Consciousness: If the victim is unresponsive or not breathing normally, initiate CPR and call 911.

Primary Survey and Interventions: Follow the primary survey steps.

Immediate Assisted Ventilation: If necessary, provide assisted ventilation.


Remember, burn injuries can be serious, and immediate medical attention is essential in many cases. Always prioritize safety and call 911 when necessary to ensure the best possible care for burn victims.

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