Burns First Aid

General Medical

Dr. Nikki Stamp

With the winter months in full swing in Australia, hospitals tend to see burns from heaters and hot water bottles as Aussies try and keep warm. When a burn occurs, it’s vitally important to know what to do because early, effective first aid limits the damage caused by the burn and can even save a life.

Research from the Burns Registry of Australian and New Zealand showed that in 2017, 70% of adults with a burn got first aid, while 87% of children got burns first aid. That means we definitely have room to improve.

Broadly speaking, there are three categories of burns. These categories tell us how deeply the skin and underlying tissues have been damaged. The deeper a burn, the more tissue is damaged and the more likely you are to need specialised care to protect the skin and help it heal.

A superficial burn is much like a sunburn and only damages the top layer of skin. The area is red, very painful and may blister. Deep burns are often mottled, can be dark red or pale yellow and may blister. They are also quite painful. Full thickness burns damage all the layers of skin right down to the tissues below the skin. It’s often pale white or charred, leathery and isn’t painful because the nerves have been burned.

No matter the thickness, the first aid to begin with is exactly the same.

First of all, check for danger which may be flame or scalding hot water and beware of getting injured yourself. Then, call for help nice and early by calling 000. Once you have ensured your safety and called for help, follow these steps:

  • Remove the person from the burning source
  • Run the affected area under cold water for at least 20 minutes – this cools the skin and tissues and limits the amount of burn injury that occurs – a shower can work really well for this
  • Remove any clothing or jewelry from near the area – if they’re wearing a ring of watch for example, even if it’s not directly on top of the burn, take it off because burnt limbs can swell.
  • Don’t pull clothing or jewellery off that is stuck to the burn
  • Cover the burn with clean, dry and non-stick material – cling wrap works nicely for this


Some burns can be managed at home, such as a small superficial scald. But if a burn is bigger than a 20-cent piece, or 3cm make sure you seek medical advice.

There are some burns that we always want to see in a hospital, with a specialised Burns Unit. These include burns where someone may have inhaled smoke, has burns on their face, especially their mouth or eyes, any burns involving a sensitive area such as hands, feet or genitals. We also like to see big burns or those from chemical or electricity in specialised burns unit. Any one at the extremes of age (children or the very elderly) also need special attention. If you’re at all unsure, head to your local emergency department.

Burns are a serious injury that can be incredibly dangerous but by knowing what to do, you can stop the burn in its tracks and even save a life. 

Image source: Kidsafe Australia


Please note: Dr. Nikki's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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