Burns: Emergency first aid

Our skin can be burnt by the sun, hot liquids (scalding) or fire. Find out about the different types of burns, how to treat them yourself and when it's essential to see a doctor.

What is it?

What are the degrees of burns?

Skin burns are the result of tissue damage caused by heat. The severity of the burn is categorised in degrees from 1 to 4 depending on the level of skin damage.

The four different degrees of burns: 

Degree of burn
Symptoms    

1st degree

  • Superficial burn
  • Skin redness
  • Pain
  • No blistering
  • Typical example: sunburn  
2nd degree
  • First and second layers of skin affected
  • Skin redness
  • Swelling
  • Blistering
  • Acute pain
3rd degree
  • Very severe skin damage (white, dry, flaking off)
  • No sensation of pain
  • Hairs burnt off
  • Possibly signs of shock (increased sweating, nausea, dizziness, pallor, possibly with heart palpitations)  
4th degree
  • Muscles, bones and joints affected
  • Skin charred and blackened   
What to do?

How do you treat burns?

The treatment of burns depends on the degree of severity:

Minor burns

You can treat minor burns or scalding yourself. First you should cool the affected part of the body using water that is around 20° C. Do not use water that is too cold or ice water, as this can cause further damage to the skin. Cool the wound until it is no longer painful, however not for more than 20 minutes. Minor burns without blistering will heal best if left uncovered. Plasters or dressings are not necessary. 

Severe burns

  • Call 144 (Swiss emergency services)
  • Remove the affected person from the source of heat
  • Cool the burn with cool water (around 20° C, do not use water that is too cold or ice water) until the skin is no longer painful, max. 20 minutes. It is essential to prevent hypothermia
  • Keep calm and reassure the patient
  • If possible, remove clothing from the affected parts of the body. Do not remove any fabric that has burnt onto the skin. If possible remove rings, shoes, watch and belt as swelling may prevent this later on
  • Cover the patient so they do not feel cold

Burns to the face

Burns to the face are particularly dangerous. People who have been burnt by fire may have inhaled smoke. This may cause their mucous membranes to swell, possibly making breathing difficult. Sit the person upright and regularly monitor their breathing until the emergency services arrive.

When to see a doctor?

When should I see a doctor?

Burns or scalds that are 2nd degree or higher, i.e. with blistering, must be treated by a doctor. The doctor will examine the affected body part and determine the degree of the burn and extent of the injury. Blisters can become inflamed and that may lead to an infection.