What is second-degree burns?

Second-Degree Burns
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Second-degree burns

Second-degree burns are injuries to the skin caused by heat, radiation, electricity, chemicals, or friction. These burns are also called partial-thickness burns.

There are two types of second-degree burns, defined by their depth:

  • Superficial partial-thickness burns injure the first and second layers of skin and are often caused by hot water or hot objects. The skin around the burn turns white (blanches) when pressed, then turns back to red. The burn is moist and painful with blistering and swelling that usually lasts for at least 48 hours.
  • Deep partial-thickness burns injure deeper skin layers and are white with red areas. They are often caused by contact with hot oil, grease, soup, or microwaved liquids. This kind of burn usually causes blisters and may be painful with pressure. The skin looks spotted, remains white when pressed, may appear waxy in some areas, and is dry or slightly moist. Possible infection is an important concern with these burns.

It may take several days before symptoms develop and it becomes clear whether the burn is superficial or deep.

Treatment varies for a second-degree burn depending on its size, depth, and a person's age and overall health. With all burns, it is important to watch for and seek treatment for any signs of infection. Second-degree burns may leave scars after the burns heal.

Second-degree burn: Deep partial-thickness burn

Second-degree burn on arm, with cross-section of skin showing redness and swelling in top two skin layers.

Second-degree burns are injuries to the skin caused by heat, radiation, electricity, chemicals, or friction. A deep second-degree burn injures the top layer of skin (epidermis) and the tissue below the skin (dermis). This type of burn is also called a deep partial-thickness burn.

After an injury, this type of burn usually causes blisters and may be painful with pressure. With this burn, the skin looks spotted, stays white when pressed, may look waxy in some areas, and is dry or slightly moist. The risk of infection is an important concern with these burns.

How to care for a second-degree burn

For many second-degree burns, home treatment is all that is needed for healing and to prevent other problems.

  1. Rinse the burn.
    • Rinse burned skin with cool water until the pain stops. Rinsing will usually stop the pain in 15 to 30 minutes. The cool water lowers the skin temperature and stops the burn from becoming more serious. You may:
      • Place arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, or toes in a basin of cool water.
      • Apply cool compresses to burns on the face or body.
    • Do not use ice or ice water, which can cause tissue damage.
    • Take off any jewelry, rings, or clothing that could be in the way or that would become too tight if the skin swells.
  2. Clean the burn.
    • Wash your hands before cleaning a burn. Do not touch the burn with your hands or anything dirty, because open blisters can easily be infected.
    • Do not break the blisters.
    • Gently wash the burn area every day with a mild soap and water. Some of the burned skin might come off with washing. Pat the area dry with a clean cloth or gauze.
    • Do not put pain-relief skin sprays on burns, because this traps the heat inside the burn.
  3. Apply ointment to keep the burn moist.
    • You may want to use petroleum jelly or an antibiotic cream or ointment, like bacitracin or triple antibiotic ointment. Apply the antibiotic cream or ointment to a nonstick dressing, and then place the dressing (ointment-side down) on the burn.
    • Using antibiotic cream or ointment for longer than a week may cause a rash. So if you're using a topical antibiotic, you may want to switch to petroleum jelly or another type of ointment or cream after a week.
    • Or you may want to use a product where the gauze dressing pad comes already coated with petroleum jelly or a similar ointment to keep the burn moist as it heals.
  4. Bandage the burn.
    • Use gauze or tape to keep the dressing in place.
    • Wrap the burn loosely to avoid putting pressure on the burned skin.
    • Do not tape a bandage so that it circles a hand, arm, or leg. This can cause swelling.
    • Apply a clean bandage whenever it gets wet or soiled. This can help prevent infection. If a bandage is stuck to a burn, soak it in warm water to make the bandage easier to remove.

Until the burn heals, wash the burn every day with a mild soap and water, unless your doctor says otherwise. (Some dressings shouldn't be changed every day.)

There are many nonprescription burn dressings available. Be sure to follow the instructions included in the package.

Take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve), as needed. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not use aspirin, because it can make bleeding in the burned area worse.

If the burn is on a leg or an arm, keep the limb raised as much as possible for the first 24 to 48 hours to decrease swelling. Move a burned leg or arm normally to keep the burned skin from healing too tightly, which can limit movement.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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