First degree burns are a common and painful household occurrence, especially among children and older adults. Many first degree burns are sunburns, but others result from contact with a hot stove, a hot liquid, a chemical, or an electrical outlet.

In addition, a person can get a first degree burn from using a tanning bed.

Research shows that 72% of burn cases in the United States happen as a result of exposure to fire or hot liquid. Scalding injuries are most common in children under the age of 16 years. Of the burns with a known place of occurrence, 72.5% happen in the home, and 98% are accidental.

Many of these burns will be first degree burns, though a second or third degree burn is possible if a person has prolonged exposure to the hot item.

Most first degree burns involve a small surface area of the skin, but some affect larger areas. They usually present as a dry, discolored area of skin. Burns on light skin look red, whereas burns on dark skin appear reddish-brown. Typically, first degree burns do not break the skin or cause blisters to form.

The best-known symptom of a first degree burn is a change in the color of the skin.

Other symptoms may include:

  • pain
  • soreness in the burned area, which usually lasts for 2–3 days
  • skin that feels warm to the touch
  • swelling
  • dry skin
  • peeling of the top skin layer within 1–2 days and the rest within 3 weeks
  • itching
  • a temporary change in skin color due to peeling
  • in people with light skin, the burnt skin turning white when applying pressure to it

Doctors define first degree burns as superficial burns because they only affect the top layer of the skin, which is called the epidermis.

More severe burns, on the other hand, tend to damage the deeper layers of the skin or all layers of the skin, including the nerves.

Other burns have the following characteristics:

  • Second degree burns: These burns go through the epidermis and reach the top of the second layer of the skin, which is known as the dermis. These burns are more likely to blister, and the affected area is generally more painful and swollen.
  • Third degree burns: This type of burn penetrates the first and second layers of skin to the third and lowest level of the skin, known as the hypodermis. With these deeper burns, the affected area may appear white, similar to the surface of a burned piece of charcoal.

Even more severe burns of a fourth, fifth, or sixth degree will involve charred or lost skin with exposed bone.

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First degree burns are superficial burns affecting only the outer layer of skin.
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First degree burns present as red, painful, dry areas. They affect only the outermost layer (the epidermis) of the skin.
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Sunburns are the most common type of first degree burn. The area of skin will be red, dry, and painful, but will recover quickly on its own or with topical creams.
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Second degree burns are partial-thickness burns. They affect two layers of skin: the epidermis and dermis.
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Second degree burns are painful. Blisters and moderate skin peeling is present.
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Home treatment is the most common way to treat a first degree burn.

Even though most first degree burns do not require treatment by a medical professional, it is still crucial to treat these injuries carefully. If the burn affects a large surface area or might be more severe than first degree, it is advisable to consult a doctor. Children and older adults may wish to take extra precautions by seeking medical attention.

It is essential to keep the affected area clean, protected, and free of infection.

Home remedies

People can take steps to treat a first degree burn at home. These include:

  • removing clothing, watches, rings, and any other jewelry near or covering the burned area
  • plunging the burned area into cool (not ice cold) water right away and keeping it there for at least 5 minutes or applying cold, wet compresses (not ice) to the area until the pain subsides
  • cleaning the burned area gently with mild soap and water
  • applying petroleum jelly to the burn two or three times daily
  • refraining from applying butter or toothpaste to a first degree burn, as this can increase the risk of infection and prevent healing
  • covering the burned area with a nonstick bandage and changing the bandage three times a week or, if there are signs of infection, every day
  • avoiding popping any blisters that may develop, as this can increase the risk of infection and scarring
  • taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to reduce pain, swelling, and inflammation
  • drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • protecting the area from the sun by staying indoors or covering the area with sun-protective clothing

If the burn does not show signs of healing within 48 hours or seems to be getting worse, a person should seek prompt medical care.

Most of the time, first degree burns do not require medical attention.

However, it is important to seek medical care immediately if a burn:

  • is larger than the palm of the person’s hand
  • affects an infant or older adult
  • completely encircles an ankle, wrist, finger, toe, or another body part
  • occurs alongside a fever or discoloration and pain that does not respond to OTC pain relievers
  • looks as though it may affect more than the top layer of the skin
  • appears infected, with discoloration extending beyond the burned area

Any time the skin sustains damage, even if the injury is a small scratch or a mild sunburn, the body cannot defend itself against infection as effectively as usual.

People should always pay close attention to first degree burns and watch for signs of possible infection, such as:

  • increased swelling and tenderness
  • a red streak leaving the burned area
  • the burn beginning to drain yellow or green liquid
  • a change in the color and general appearance of the burned area

The National Institute of General Medical Sciences says that it takes about 1 week for a first degree burn to heal, although it may take up to 3 weeks for the skin to peel completely. Any residual discoloration may take months to resolve.

Scarring is not usually a problem following a first degree burn.

The reason for this is that scars only form when the lower layer of the skin becomes damaged, and first degree burns do not usually penetrate that far into the skin.

However, people should always take extra care with sensitive, damaged skin. If the skin in the affected area begins to peel, it is best to leave it to shed naturally, as pulling it off might be painful and cause scarring.

Sometimes, the burned area can itch during recovery. Although the itching might be uncomfortable, it is a regular part of healing. Skin moisturizers and OTC antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), can help reduce the discomfort. A person should refrain from scratching the itch, as this could further damage the skin and risk scarring.

Most first degree burns heal within a week. However, some people may find that the healed skin remains darker or lighter than the surrounding skin for several weeks.

At-home treatment is generally sufficient for first degree burns, although it is advisable for infants and older adults with burns to consult a doctor.

Minimizing exposure to direct sunlight and following standard sun safety practices can help prevent further damage to the skin.