A saucepan spits hot oil onto your hand. It goes red, swells, hurts – and can look scary.

Some burns need professional care, others can be treated at home. Knowing what you’re dealing with will help you take the best action. Here are some pointers…

Burns demand a quick response, no matter how big or small. After the scare, the shock and the flash of pain, the worst thing is that they could cause permanent scarring, infection and bigger problems in serious cases. If you can gauge how bad it is, you can take steps that will minimise the damage.

A first-degree burn is superficial. It can turn the skin red and swell a little, but doesn’t lead to blistering. Sunburn is an example.

Blisters are the first sign of a second-degree burn, which is usually caused by brief contact with something hot. It can cause pain and initial swelling.

Third-degree burns usually happen when contact with the heat lasts quite a while. They may go into the third, innermost layer of skin. The result is white or blackened, charred skin that may be numb.

Burns don’t always involve a hot object or substance. Corrosive substances or their fumes can result in chemical burns. It could be from a household cleaner like bleach or ammonia, certain beauty products or pool chlorine. They start a reaction which generates heat.

An electrical burn can leave skin burns, but they won’t tell you how much damage was caused as the current passed through the body. That is determined by how strong the current and how long the contact was.

With some burns, you can offer relief or even help along with the recovery, but others you should not mess with. Call emergency services for anything that looks like a third-degree burn. Get medical help if the area is larger than around 8 centimetres in diameter or covers the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or a major joint.

A victim of an electrical burn should also see a professional who can do tests for internal damage. Call an emergency service if there are symptoms like confusion, a struggle to breathe, muscle pain and contractions or irregular heartbeat.

While you wait for help, raise the injured part above the heart and make sure no clothing is stuck to the burn.

An area smaller than 8 centimetres with redness and even blisters should be fine with home treatment. There are safe, sensible things you can do to relieve the pain and help with the healing.

Start treating a minor burn by holding it under running cool (not cold) water for around 20 minutes. Reduce the pain and swelling with a cold compress. This can be a bought ice pack or home-made – a bag with ice or frozen veg in it. You could also freeze a damp cloth in a plastic bag until it’s solid or stiff. Wrap any of these in a clean cloth so it doesn’t stick to the skin and use for 5 to 15 minutes at a time.

Apply an antibacterial ointment. Aloe vera, often called the "burn plant", is a proven option for first and second-degree burns. The gel works straight from the leaf of the plant. If you buy aloe vera, check that it doesn’t contain a lot of additives like colouring or perfumes. Honey on a minor burn can also help with healing.

Chemical burns require a swift reaction. Rinse the skin under running water for 10 to 20 minutes. If it’s in the eyes, rinse them constantly for 20 minutes.

Remove clothing with chemicals on them and wrap the burn loosely with a dressing or clean cloth. Most chemical burns do not require specialised treatment.

Keep burnt skin out of the sun and covered with clothing. Don’t pop or break blisters. They can become infected and cause more damage or scarring.

A first-degree burn will usually heal in 7 to 10 days and not leave any marks once the top skin cells shed. Most second-degree burns heal within two to three weeks without scarring, but the affected area’s skin pigment often changes. For third-degree burns, you might need some form of surgery and long-term treatment.

* Don’t put ice on a burn. It can make the damage worse and slow the healing or even cause frostbite.
* Don't cover a wound with anything you’re not sure is clean and not with material like cotton that has fibres which might come off and get stuck in the wound.
* There’s no proof that home remedies such as butter or eggs work, so don’t risk them.

The best way to fight burns is to prevent them. Most burns happen at home and involve infants and young children who are the most vulnerable. Use these safety tips and help prevent burn injuries before they happen:
* Make sure that kettles and their cords are always placed out of reach of children.
* Put all hot drinks, hot cooking oil and hot porridge out of reach of children.
* Do not carry urns or pots of boiling water around while there are toddlers on the floor or children running about.
* Always turn pot handles away from the front of the stove.
* Place candles in a deep glass jar with sand at the bottom so that it kills the flame, should the jar be knocked over.
* Repair all faulty electrical plugs and leads.
* Report stolen cover plates on power poles or substations with broken fences or locks.
* Don’t leave children unsupervised near matches, candles, lighters or fireworks or when they’re in or near the kitchen.
* Lock paraffin and other flammables away.
* Don’t cover braai fires with sand. The heat stays in the sand for hours and will burn unsuspected feet walking over the sand. Pour water over fires and coals.
* Don’t cook eggs in a microwave. The shell can explode and cause severe face and eye injuries.
* Noodles cooked in microwave ovens become extremely hot, along with the container, and can cause severe burns.
* Pour cold water in the bath first and then add hot water. Set your geyser to low temperatures (about 55°C). Always test the bath water with your elbow before bathing children.
* Avoid using tablecloths or anything a child can pull on and cause hot food or liquid to spill.
* Never hold a child while cooking.
* Test and stir all food before serving children to make sure it is cool enough to eat.

(Sources:,,, American Academy of Dermatology –,

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