What’s the Difference Between 1st, 2nd & 3rd Degree Burns?

ProTrainings What’s the Difference Between 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Degree Burns?

Burns are very common injuries that can vary greatly in terms of severity, size, and cause. Most people have probably heard that burns are classified by degrees of severity, but what’s the difference between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree burns, and what kind of treatment does each type need?

Minor burns can often be treated at home, while severe burns are a medical emergency requiring immediate medical attention. When in doubt, consult a doctor about the best course of action to take.

Read on to learn more about the various types of burns and how to treat them.

What Is a Burn? 

Burns, usually caused by contact with or exposure to heat, are injuries to the skin or tissue. Beyond this basic definition, however, there are many different types of burns. Some are mild and can be treated at home, while others can be debilitating or even life-threatening. 

Major types of burns include:

  • Heat burn: Also called a thermal burn. Heat burns are caused by contact with heat, such as scalding water, a hot stove, or fire. 
  • Chemical burn: Caused by contact with or exposure to dangerous chemicals, such as acid or cleaning products.
  • Radiation burn: A side effect of exposure to radiation. Radiation burns can be caused by X-rays, radiation therapy (such as cancer treatments), or even the sun (a sunburn).
  • Electrical burn: Damage from contact with an electrical current. 
  • Friction burn: The result of trauma to the skin from rubbing quickly across an abrasive surface, such as carpet or rope. 

While burns are common household injuries, they can also be very serious and should always be carefully treated. Many burns of various degrees can leave a scar, and they can have devastating long-term effects, both physically and emotionally. 

What’s the Difference Between 1st, 2nd & 3rd Degree Burns?

Burns are categorized by degrees of severity, with a 1st degree burn being the mildest and a 3rd degree burn being (generally) the most severe. These classifications are determined by the depth of the burn, though the area of the body that it covers also impacts the overall severity.

ProTrainings What’s the Difference Between 1st, 2nd, & 3rd Degree Burns?
  • 1st Degree: Only impacts the epidermis (outer layer of skin). The burn is moderately painful, pink or red, and dry, with no blisters. 
  • 2nd Degree: Impacts both the epidermis and the dermis (second layer of skin) to some degree. Milder 2nd degree burns are red and wet, with blistering and severe pain, while more serious cases are yellow or white and dry, with minimal pain due to loss of sensation.
  • 3rd Degree: Impacts the subcutaneous tissues (beneath the skin). The burn is minimally painful, also due to loss of sensation, appears white, brown, or black, and is dry and leathery. 

Additional degrees of severity, such as 4th degree, may be used to describe burns with charred or missing skin and exposed bone. 

How Do You Treat a Burn?

Exact treatment for a burn varies depending on the severity, cause, and location on the body. As a general rule of thumb, seek emergency aid if the burn is larger than three inches (or the person’s hand), is caused by electricity or chemicals, is leaking pus or fluid, or is located on the face, feet, hands, or a joint. 

How to Treat a 1st Degree Burn

Usually, you can treat a minor burn at home. Use cool (not cold) water to soothe the burn and apply antibiotic ointment or cream with a clean bandage. Avoid using ice or cotton balls to treat the burn, as these can cause further damage to the affected area.

A small 1st degree burn should heal within a few days, with minimal or no scarring. If the burn does not get better or worsens over time, see a doctor. 

How to Treat a 2nd Degree Burn

A 2nd degree burn is the most common type of burn. It takes longer to heal — typically a few weeks — and is likely to scar, but if it is small, you can often still treat it at home. As with a 1st degree burn, gently wash the affected area with cool water and bandage it. If any blisters burst open during the healing process, keep the area covered to prevent infection.

Seek medical attention if the burn displays severe symptoms, such as yellow or white skin or loss of sensation, signs of infection, or covers a large area of the body.

How to Treat a 3rd Degree Burn

For a 3rd degree burn or higher, seek immediate medical attention. Burns this deep often require skin grafts, and large and/or severe burns may be life-threatening. With proper care, severe burns can take several weeks or a few months to heal. 

It’s always best to err on the side of caution. If you aren’t sure how severe a burn is or if it requires emergency care, go to the emergency room or consult a doctor as soon as you can.

First Aid for Burns

So what’s the difference between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd degree burns? These classifications are used to describe the severity and treatment needed for various burns. The mildest burns can often be treated at home, while extremely severe burns require immediate medical attention and hospitalization. 

No matter how mild the burn appears to be, it’s important to treat it quickly and with proper care for the best chance of recovery with minimal scarring. 
At ProTrainings, we offer First Aid courses covering a wide range of emergency situations. Check out our first aid training options today.