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What's the difference between first-, second- and third-degree burns

"The three classifications of burns help determine emergency care," says Russell Bird, MD, a family medicine specialist with Baptist Health Urgent Care (Middletown).

The least serious burns (first-degree) are those in which only the outer layer of skin is burned.

"The skin is usually red and swollen, but the outer layer of skin hasn’t been burned through," Dr. Bird explains.

Treat a first-degree burn as a minor burn unless it involves substantial portions of the hands, feet, face, groin or buttocks, or a major joint.

"When the first layer of skin has been burned through and the second layer of skin also is burned, the injury is termed a second-degree burn," Bird says.

Blisters develop and the skin takes on an intensely reddened, splotchy appearance. If the second-degree burn is no larger than two to three inches in diameter, treat it as a minor burn. If the burned area is larger, get medical help immediately.

The most serious burns (third-degree) involve all layers of the skin.

Fat, muscle and even bone may be affected. Areas may be charred black or appear dry and white.

For major burns, dial 911. Until an emergency unit arrives, Bird recommends the following steps:

  • Don’t remove burnt clothing. However, do make sure the victim is no longer in contact with smoldering materials, smoke or heat.
  • Don’t immerse large burns in cold water. Doing so could cause shock.
  • Check for signs of circulation and breathing. If no signs are present, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
  • Cover the area of the burn with a cool, moist, sterile bandage; or clean, moist towel.