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How to Treat and Recognise a Burn – Effective First Aid for Burns

Burning Match

Each year approximately 50,000 burns related hospital admissions occur in Australia – over 1,000 of these are children in Victoria, with children aged 0-4 years at greatest risk.

When you think of burn and scald injuries, most likely the first thing that comes to mind is sunburn, however, this is just one of the many types of injuries that occur.

Scalds Versus Burns 

Interestingly, scalds – caused by something wet, such as hot water or steam – are more common than dry heat injuries such as sunburn. In a recent study, it was found scalds were the most common cause of burn injury in older adults, with older adult patients most commonly affected by scalds after coming in contact with wet heat such as boiling liquids or steam. Over the nine-year study period, 17,821 burn injury admissions were recorded, of these 13.4% were older adults. The study discovered, with increasing age, the percentage of women affected and the incidence of scalds both increased, and the amount of flame burns decreased.   

So, with that being said, let’s explore why this may be the case. One thing we do know is that the home is the most common location burns occur. This is because a lot of household items are high-risk for burns and scalds, including kettles, hot water bottles, pots, hot drinks, heaters, fireplaces, and irons. The majority of these items are used every day which means the risk of acquiring an injury is significantly higher.

Take hot water bottles for example, frequently used to ease pain or in winter for warming a bed or parts of the body. This product is made from either rubber or polyvinyl chloride and if used incorrectly can leave nasty scalds. Recently, there has been a significant increase in cases whereby people have suffered scalds from hot water bottles, mainly due to using boiling water instead of hot water from the tap (which is instructed to use) and then placing directly on the skin. These burns are serious and happen gradually, often the user cannot feel these burns until it is too late and it can often lead to third degree burns which may require skin grafts. 

To ensure these injuries do not occur, it is important to always follow user instructions.

Types of Burns

Burns can be caused in four ways: Friction (flame), ultraviolet (UV radiation), hot liquids, electricity and certain chemicals. There are three different types of burns that can occur:

Superficial burns (first-degree burns) 

These burns cause damage to the first or top layer of skin only. The burn area will be red and painful. E.g. sunburn

Partial thickness burns (second-degree burns)

These burns cause damage to the first and second skin layers. The burn area will be red, peeling, blistered and swelling with clear or yellow-coloured fluid leaking from the skin.

Full thickness burns (third-degree burns)

This involves damage to both the first and second skin layers, plus the underlying tissue. The burn site generally appears black or charred with white exposed fatty tissue. The nerves are destroyed and the pain will not be as strong with a full thickness burn. 

When it comes to burn injuries, major burns are considered a medical emergency and require urgent treatment. For minor burns, the following first aid treatment should be applied immediately. 

First Aid for Burns

The management of burns can depend on the type and extent of the injury. While most minor burns can be treated at home using cool running water for 20 minutes, more serious burns may require medical treatment and medication. The main aim when managing a burn is to control pain, remove dead tissue, prevent infection and reduce scarring.

If a burn or scald does occur and requires treatment, first aid for burns is the same for all types:

  1. REMOVE all jewellery from around the burn area. Remove any clothing and nappies around the burn area unless stuck to the skin
  2. COOL the burn under cool running water for no more and no less than 20 minutes.
    DO NOT use ice or creams as this can further damage the skin
  3. COVER the burn loosely with cling wrap or a clean, damp lint-free cloth
  4. SEEK immediate medical advice if the burn is:
    • larger than a 20-cent coin
    • on the face, hands, groin or feet
    • deep or infected
    • caused by chemicals or, electricity

Do not use ice to cool the burn as this may make the burn worse. Never apply any lotions, creams or food items (including egg whites, butter, toothpaste, potato). Cool running water is best.

Fortunately, the majority of burns are preventable and by just taking a few minutes to make your home and environment as safe as possible, you could prevent a life-changing injury.  

Learn more about the different types of burns and how to effectively treat them in this interactive online course.

Bitesize Burns and Shock
Learn about different types of burns, how to effectively treat them and provide first aid for shock in this interactive online course.
Group of first aid training participants socially distanced


Learn how to manage a range of common first aid scenarios.

3 St John first aid kits stacked on a table in a room


St John has a range of First Aid products to suit any situation. 

Bitesize Burns course


Learn about different types of burns, how to effectively treat them and provide first aid for shock in this interactive online course.