Symptoms and Signs of Burns

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 9/29/2021

Doctor's Notes on Burns

A burn is a general term that can mean any injury that involves heat, fire, chemical, or electrical injury to skin, blood vessels, nerves, organs, or bone. Injury ranges from minor to life-threatening. The severity of the burn determines the signs and symptoms. First degree burns show red skin and local pain (sunburn). Second degree burns show pain, redness with blister formation, and swelling (for example, spilling hot coffee on your arm); the skin often peels off. Third degree burns show white or black charred skin, and the third degree burn area has no pain due to nerve damage. Many burns are serious, including second degree types. Those burns that are to the face, hands, feet, and/or genitals, go completely around an arm or leg, or involve more than 10% of the body surface (palm of the hand equals about 1% of body surface) necessitate a call to 911.

Heat, fire, chemical, or electrical sources can be the cause of burns. Burns require special medical care as the prognosis of the patient often depends on burn wound care and treatment of secondary problems like smoke inhalation, dehydration, infections, and tissue loss.

What Are the Treatments for Burns?

Treatment of burns is based on the severity of the burn; minor burns may have the following characteristics usually do not need emergency care:

  • Redness of skin like sunburn
  • Pain
  • Some blisters may form
  • The above symptoms and signs in a skin area about 3 inches in diameter (except on facial areas and genitals)
  • Home treatments include running cool water over the burn, removing constrictive items like rings or watches, not bursting blisters, applying lotion, covering with a bandage, and applying over-the-counter pain reliever

For major burns, call 911or go to the nearest emergency department and meanwhile try to do the following:

  • Keep the burned person (and yourself) away from further harm.
  • Check the person's breathing and assist if necessary.
  • Remove any restrictive items especially in burn areas as burns cause swelling.
  • Cover the burn with a moist clean cloth.
  • Elevate the burn area above the heart if possible.
  • Watch for signs of shock (fainting, shallow breathing, low blood pressure, for example).
  • Do not submerge large burns in water (may trigger hypothermia).


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