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The skin is more than just a layer of tissue; it protects the body from harmful substances such as germs and sunrays and helps regulate body temperature. When the body becomes too warm, the glands under the skin secrete sweat, which has a cooling effect. As important as it is, however, the skin is delicate and can be easily damaged. Fortunately, most of these injuries are usually superficial—as is the case with first-degree burns.

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What is a First-Degree Burn?

Medical professionals classify burns according to how deeply they penetrate the skin. First-degree burns are the mildest -- they only affect the epidermis or outermost layer of the skin. Second- and third-degree burns are more serious; the latter affects the deeper tissues and often causes nerve damage. Sunburns are a common example of a first-degree burn. They develop due to overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

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Who is at Risk for First-Degree Burns?

Anyone can get first-degree burns; young children, however, are particularly vulnerable. For instance, it is not uncommon for them to burn themselves with hot liquid such as water from a pot. Scalds are the most common cause of superficial burns in children under the age of four. In addition to that, those who spend many hours outdoors are at a greater risk of sunburn.

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Symptoms of a First-Degree Burn

First-degree burns can cause a variety of symptoms. In addition to pain—which can last up to 72 hours—the site will be red, dry, and peeling. It is important to note that the skin will be non-blistered, as blisters are a symptom of second- and third-degree burns. In some cases, the area surrounding the burn may also be of a slightly different color.

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How Long Does it Take to Heal?

The skin will often peel as it heals—this is the body’s way of removing the damaged cells. While it depends on various factors such as the size of the burn, most will heal within one to two weeks. During that time, the affected individual can protect the area with a sterile dressing. The burn site will often itch during the healing process., so it is important to avoid scratching the area, as this can lead to infection.

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What Causes First-Degree Burns?

The sun’s ultraviolet rays often cause sunburns—the most common type of first-degree burn. Other causes include scalds and exposure to electricity. Individuals can accidentally burn themselves with hot water or steam. Coming into contact with certain chemicals such as bleach or ammonia can also lead to painful burns.

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When to Go to the Doctor

First-degree burns can often be treated at home. However, there are situations that require a doctor’s visit. For instance, individuals should call a healthcare provider if they have a fever, as it may be a sign of an infection. In addition to that, they should seek medical help if there is fluid leaking from the burn site or a great amount of redness or swelling. Burns on certain sites—such as those on the face, groin, hands, and feet—may require a visit to the doctor regardless of severity, as they tend to heal more slowly compared to other parts of the body.

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Diagnosing First-Degree Burns

Diagnosing first-degree burns is a relatively simple process. To start, the doctor will ask about an individual’s symptoms and health history. From there, they will perform a physical exam, looking for signs of infection such as swelling, pus, or oozing. After considering the patient's signs and symptoms and whether or not he or she had recent exposure to something that can cause a burn, the doctor will make a diagnosis.

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First Aid Treatment for First-Degree Burns

Individuals should first cool the burn by soaking the area with cool water. Avoid ice as extreme cold can injure the tissue further. After cooling the burn, gently clean the wound with soap and water. Do not apply oil, lotion, cream, or butter, as they can prevent healing; aloe vera and petroleum jelly are appropriate alternatives, as are some antibiotic ointments. If necessary, apply a non-stick gauze to the burn wound. Painkillers can alleviate any lasting pain.

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Possible Complications of First-Degree Burns

Given that they are a superficial injury, first-degree burns rarely cause complications. In some rare cases, however, bacteria can enter through the burn site, leading to infection. For this reason, it is important to keep any wound clean. Depending on the severity of such an infection, a person may require antibiotic treatment.

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Preventing First-Degree Burns

It is possible to prevent first-degree burns. For instance, an individual should always wear sunscreen when outdoors to prevent sunburn. In the kitchen, pot handles should always turn inward. Hot appliances such as irons and toasters should be kept in safe places. Parents should teach their children from an early age not to play with lighters and matches.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.