Types of Burns

Burns are one of the most common household injuries — we’ve all suffered them. But how do you know if your burn is serious? Here’s how to identify the 3 types of burns and when to seek treatment.

What Are the 3 Types of Burns?

Burns are described as being superficial, partial thickness, or full thickness. Previously burns were described by degree.

Superficial burns (first degree) only affect the epidermis, or outside of your skin. Superficial burns appear red or pink, much like a sunburn, and need no specific treatment.

Partial thickness burns (second degree) involve both the epidermis and the dermis. Some partial thickness burns heal while others may need skin grafting. Some may appear wet or blistering while others are deep cherry red.

Full thickness burns (third degree) affect the entire epidermis and dermis and require surgery. Full thickness burns appear white or charred. You may not even feel this burn as nerves might have been damaged.

Partial thickness and full thickness burns need immediate medical treatment.

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What Should I Do If I Suffer a Serious Burn?

Severe burns harm your body’s natural healing ability, which makes treating deep burns even more difficult. If a medical expert treats a burn immediately, there are options to help prevent serious complications.

Learn about the UPMC Mercy Burn Center

If you have a serious burn, seek emergency care right away. Remember, pain level doesn’t always indicate the severity of a burn.

If you sustain a serious burn, you should:

  • Call 911 immediately.
  • Leave in place any clothing or materials stuck to the burn (removing may open blisters).
  • Flush chemical burns with large amounts of water to wash away the chemical.
  • Loosely cover the burned area with a sterile, non-adhesive bandage, clean cloth, or a sheet.
  • Do not apply ice or cream, jelly, ointment, or other topicals to the burn.
  • Do not peel away burned skin.

What Should I Do If I’m With Someone Who Suffers a Serious Burn?

Try to remove the patient from the source of the burn.


  • Cover burns with a clean, dry sheet or cloth.
  • Burns that cover more than 10% of the body, any that involving the face, hands, or groin area, or those that are full thickness should be transferred to a burn center.

Do Not:

  • Apply ointments or butter to burns.
  • Place a pillow under the victim’s head if you suspect an airway burn as this could compromise their airway.
  • Attempt to treat the burn yourself; always wait for trained medical help.

See if the person is in shock (rapid breathing, low blood pressure, blueish and/or clammy skin). If they are, elevate the feet to improve blood flow to the heart. Cover the person gently with a coat or blanket to help return their body temperature to normal.

Finding Expert Burn Treatment

Hospitals with burn units have trained medical experts to care for burn victims.

The approach a doctor takes in treating a burn depends on a variety of factors such as the person’s overall health and the size of the burn, its cause, and its location.

Treatment could include:

  • Cleaning the burn site and removing dead skin and tissue from the area.
  • Providing intravenous fluids with electrolytes to help the body heal, and to regulate temperature and organ function.
  • Pain medicine.
  • A tetanus shot to prevent infection.
  • Skin grafts. A surgeon takes healthy skin from another area of the body to cover and eventually close the wound site. The person may need a skin graft because the skin may not regenerate on its own in severely burned areas.
  • Physical and occupational therapy.
  • Nutritional assessment and maintenance.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Burns?

A severe burn could affect a person’s life for years.

Some burn victims lose the ability to sweat in burned areas of their body, which means the body can’t cool itself. As a result, they must avoid many forms of physical activity. Other complications could include scarring, infections, emotional trauma, and damage to joints or other body parts.

Preventing Burns

You can prevent burns for yourself and your family by adopting safety practices around the house such as:

  • Never leave a stove or oven unattended while in use.
  • Keep a close eye on children around open flames and a hot stove.
  • Store harsh chemicals securely and out of the way.
  • Keep children and pets away from hot irons or other appliances.

Established in 1967, the UPMC Mercy Burn Center is an American Burn Association-verified burn center. The center provides comprehensive support at every phase of recovery.

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.