10 mistakes to avoid in burn care and prevention

by Laura S. Johnson, MD, Burn Surgeon
January 12, 2018

Burn injuries are one of the leading causes of accidental death and injury in the United States. And while nearly 97 percent of people who suffer burn injuries survive, many will sustain serious, lifelong physical disabilities.

We can turn these statistics around by following a few simple burn prevention tips and by knowing what to do if you or a loved one is burned. Unfortunately, we see a lot of mistakes because people simply didn’t know what to do in the situation or because they followed an old wives’ tale.

Despite all the best prevention efforts, burns can happen. If you find yourself faced with a burn wound, whether it’s on you or a loved one, make sure you know what not to do. Let’s take a look at some of these more common mistakes, and talk about what should actually be done.

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5 mistakes people make when treating a burn wound

1. Icing burn wounds

Fight heat with cold, right? Wrong, at least when it comes to burns. Using cold water or ice on a burn is one of the biggest mistakes we see people make. I know it probably feels good at first, but it may end up doing more harm than good.

Don’t forget that frostbite is as much a thermal injury as a burn caused by fire. They both damage tissue. You don’t want to add a cold injury on top of a heat injury. Also, you don’t want to lower your body temperature too much, as it can impair your physiologic response to stress. Instead, if it’s a small burn that doesn’t require immediate emergency care, run the wound under room-temperature tap water for 10 minutes. Then, apply a first aid burn cream or petroleum jelly and a bandage.

2. Using home remedies

Speaking of first aid burn cream, don’t try making your own. Mayonnaise, mustard, honey, butter—I’ve seen it all applied to burns. Toothpaste may have been my favorite because they smelled so minty fresh! While these products may not necessarily make a burn wound worse, they may impede healing by trapping the heat. And if they are contaminated in any way, they can lead to infection.

So save the butter for your toast. Instead, use an over-the-counter, nonperfumed, antimicrobial moisturizing agent. You also can take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain control.

3. Popping burn blisters

If your burns are severe enough to blister, you should probably be seen at a Burn Center. The providers can drain the blisters and provide dressings to protect the skin underneath.

Related reading: When to seek treatment at a burn center

4. Asking for antibiotics 

“Is it infected? Do I need antibiotics?” This is a common question we get from burn patients. Antibiotics generally are not needed in the early management of burn wounds.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, there’s no way to completely sterilize burn areas, since our normal, healthy skin has bacteria living on it on a day-to-day basis. Antibiotics prescribed to take by mouth will disrupt the normal balance of bacteria in our bodies.

Second, as antibiotic resistance has grown over the years, we’ve become much more careful about how we administer antibiotics. The topical agents we put on burns are anti-microbial, which provide an antibiotic action, but it’s targeted to the specific area. This way, we can avoid impacting a person’s entire body.

5. Underestimating burn wounds 

Burns can be deceiving. Unless you see burns all the time, it can be easy to be fooled into thinking one isn’t as bad as it actually is. I would much rather you overestimate how bad a burn is and come in than wait too long and face long-term consequences, such as amputation or loss of function.

If the burn is bigger than the palm of your hand or there is blistering, seek help. You also should seek medication attention if you have a persistent fever or redness that extends beyond the border of the burn injury, as these may indicate an infection.

You also may want to consider seeking treatment at a specialized Burn Center like ours. The American Burn Association recommends you receive treatment from a burn center if you have:

  • Burns that involve the face, hands, feet, genitals or major joints
  • Third-degree burns, which can appear whitish, charred or translucent with no sensation in the burned area when pricked with a pin
  • Burns that cover more than 10 percent of total body surface area
  • A pre-existing medical condition that can complicate recovery, such as diabetes

While it’s always good to know how to treat a burn wound, we hope you’ll never actually need to use that knowledge. You can reduce your burn risk by avoiding a few common mistakes.

5 mistakes that can increase your burn risk

1. Not wearing safety gear

It’s not always sexy, but safety gear can save your life. This can include goggles, gloves and shoes. It may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised by the number of people we treat who were burned because they weren’t wearing oven mitts to pick up a hot item in the kitchen.

A few years ago, we treated a number of patients injured in unexpected laboratory accidents. While they did suffer burns, the injuries could have been much worse had they not been wearing safety goggles.

2. Not being aware of your environment

Stop for a moment. Do you know where the nearest exits and fire extinguishers are? Along with preventing a fire in the first place, it’s important to think about protecting yourself and escaping from a fire as well. A little pre-planning can go a long way. Make sure everyone in your household knows how to escape various rooms in the house, and establish a plan for where to meet up at a safe distance.

3. Not knowing how to put out a kitchen fire

When a pot or pan catches fire in the kitchen, people tend to want to throw it in the sink or outside. This can lead to a burn while picking it up or to the fire spreading as it’s moved.

Instead, if there’s a fire on the stovetop, cut off the oxygen that feeds it by covering the pot or pan with a lid. If this doesn’t work, pour baking soda on it or grab the fire extinguisher. Don’t try to smother the fire with a towel unless it’s soaking wet.

If something catches fire in the oven, shut the oven off and back away. The fire should eventually die down on its own. Once it’s cooled, you can open the oven and clean things up.

If a fire doesn’t die down within a few minutes or begins to spread, call the fire department immediately.

Related reading: Tips to avoid burns in the kitchen

4. Not using sunscreen or checking the temperature of bathwater 

These are two basic burn prevention methods that too many people don’t take seriously enough. A first-degree sunburn, while maybe not life-threatening, can be exceptionally painful. Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher and reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating.

And while most people tend to think of checking the temperature of their child’s bath, they often forget when it comes to our elderly loved ones. Temperatures that healthy adults might be able to tolerate can be enough to cause burns on the fragile skin of the young and old.

5. Not following instructions

Before you throw a turkey into your new deep fryer, have you read the manufacturer’s instructions? Most appliances and electronics carry a risk of fire, especially if not used as directed. I’ve seen it all, including burns from e-cigarettes exploding .

We often can prevent fires and burns by following a few simple tips, and we can keep burn injuries from becoming more serious by avoiding common mistakes. If you or a loved one suffers a burn injury, seek immediate treatment at a Burn Center. Even if you don’t think the burn is “that serious,” we can make sure you receive appropriate care to prevent infection, reduce scarring and lower the risk of long-term complications.

Category: Healthy Living     Tags: burn preventionburn woundsburns