The difference between first, second & third degree burns

Here’s a brief overview of the differences between first, second and third degree burns, including the various symptoms that may be experienced, and typical treatments.

First-degree burns

Types of burns: First, second and third degree burnsFirst-degree burns involve the top layer of skin. Sunburn is one example of a first-degree burn.

Signs of a first-degree burn:

  • Red
  • Painful to touch
  • Skin will show mild swelling

Treatment for first-degree burns:

  • Apply cool, wet compresses, or immerse in cool, fresh water. Continue until pain subsides.
  • Cover the burn with a sterile, non-adhesive bandage or clean cloth.
  • Do not apply ointments or butter to burn; these may cause infection.
  • Over-the-counter pain medications may be used to help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
  • First degree burns usually heal without further treatment. However, if a first-degree burn covers a large area of the body, or the victim is an infant or elderly, seek emergency medical attention.
Second-degree burns

Second-degree burns involve the first two layers of skin.

Signs of a second-degree burn:

  • Deep reddening of the skin
  • Pain
  • Blisters
  • Glossy appearance from leaking fluid
  • Possible loss of some skin

Treatment for second-degree burns:

  • Immerse in fresh, cool water, or apply cool compresses. Continue for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Dry with clean cloth and cover with sterile gauze.
  • Do not break blisters.
  • Do not apply ointments or butter to burns; these may cause infection
  • Elevate burned arms or legs
  • Take steps to prevent shock: lay the victim flat, elevate the feet about 12 inches, and cover the victim with a coat or blanket. Do not place the victim in the shock position if a head, neck, back, or leg injury is suspected, or if it makes the victim uncomfortable.
  • Further medical treatment is required. Do not attempt to treat serious burns unless you are a trained health professional.
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Third-degree burns

A third-degree burn penetrates the entire thickness of the skin, and permanently destroys tissue.

Signs of a third-degree burn:



  • Loss of skin layers
  • Often painless. (Pain may be caused by patches of first- and second-degree burns which often surround third-degree burns)
  • Skin is dry and leathery
  • Skin may appear charred or have patches that appear white, brown or black.

Treatment for third-degree burns:

  • Cover burn lightly with sterile gauze or clean cloth. (Don’t use material that can leave lint on the burn).
  • Do not apply ointments or butter to burns; these may cause infection
  • Take steps to prevent shock: lay the victim flat, elevate the feet about 12 inches.
  • Have person sit up if face is burned. Watch closely for possible breathing problems.
  • Elevate burned area higher than the victim’s head when possible. Keep person warm and comfortable, and watch for signs of shock.
  • Do not place a pillow under the victim’s head if the person is lying down and there is an airway burn. This can close the airway.
  • Immediate medical attention is required. Do not attempt to treat serious burns unless you are a trained health professional.


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