Symptoms and Signs of Thermal (Heat or Fire) Burns

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 11/11/2021

Doctor's Notes on Thermal (Heat or Fire) Burns

Thermal burns occur when the body is exposed to fire and/or heat. The signs and symptoms of thermal burns depend upon how extensively the skin is affected. Currently, burns are described as to what skin layer is affected. The following describes the signs and symptoms of thermal burns:

  • Superficial burn or first-degree burn:
    • Skin is painful and red
    • No blisters but skin turns white when touched
    • Mainly the epidermis is involved.
  • Partial-thickness burns or second-degree burn:
    • Painful red areas of skin that turned white when touched
    • Blister formation
    • Hair may still be present on the skin.
    • The epidermis and the dermis layer of skin is involved.
  • Full-thickness burns or third-degree burn:
    • Painless
    • No sensation to touch
    • Skin area may be whitish or charred dry and have leathery appearance.
    • All three layers of skin (epidermis, dermis, and subcutaneous tissue) are involved.
    • In severe full-thickness burns, muscle tissue and/or bone may be observed.

Thermal burns are caused by exposure to heat sources such as sunlight or hot items like an electric stove burner or direct flames like seen in a house fire. The severity of the thermal burn depends on how hot and how long of a time the skin is exposed to the heat source. Any partial-thickness burn that is larger than your hand's palm should be seen by medical caregiver. Any full-thickness burn is considered a medical emergency. Any partial- or full-thickness burn on the genitals, eyes, ears, hands, feet, or joints should be seen by emergency caregivers no matter what size they are.

What Are the Treatments of Thermal Burns?

Treatment of thermal burns is based on the severity of the burn. Minor burns may have the following characteristics and usually do not need emergency care:

  • Redness of skin (sunburn)
  • Pain
  • Some blisters may form.
  • The above symptoms and signs within a skin area about 3 inches in diameter (except on facial areas and genitals)
  • Home treatments include running cool water over the burn, remove constrictive items like rings or watches, don't bust blisters, apply lotion, and cover with a bandage. Over-the-counter pain relievers may be used.

For major thermal burns or for thermal burns about 3 inches and larger and/or facial or genital involvement, call 911 or immediately go to the nearest emergency department and, meanwhile, try to do the following:

  • Keep the burned person (and yourself) away from further harm.
  • Check breathing; assist if necessary.
  • Go to a hospital that has a critical care burn unit, if possible, where burn specialists can determine the best treatment protocols, depending on the severity of the thermal burn.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.