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How to Treat a Burn at Home (and When to Head to the Hospital)

Many minor burns can be treated at home and don't need medical attention. Here's what you need to know.

by Margaret O'Malley /
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Labor Day is right around the corner and millions of Americans will be firing up their barbecues to celebrate the unofficial end of summer. Grilling season can also be "burn season." In 2014, over 8,000 Americans went to the emergency rooms with thermal burns as a result of a grill fire or accident while cooking outdoors.

Whether you sustain a burn from a grill or another heat source, you'll want to know when to treat at home and when it's better left to the professionals. To get the bottom of it, we teamed up with the special effects team at SyFy Channel's Face Off and Dr. John Torres, NBC News Medical Correspondent, to create amazingly realistic burns, both minor and more severe, to show you how to treat a burn at home — and when you should head to the hospital.

Dr. Torres says that the majority of the burns he sees in emergency rooms don't actually need professional medical attention. Here's what you need to know:

When to Treat a Burn at Home

  1. When you feel pain.
  2. The skin is blanchable. This means the skin turns white when pressed and then red again.
  3. The burn isn't covering your hands, joints (think: knees or hips) or face.

How to Treat a Burn at Home

  • Step 1: Remove any hot or burning material from the affected area.
  • Step 2: Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Step 3: Apply antibiotic ointment.
  • Step 4: Cover with a gauze pad.
  • Step 5: Wrap with a roll of gauze and secure with adhesive tape.

Related

When to Head to the ER to Treat a Burn

  1. The burn is deep and the skin is peeling.
  2. There is little or no pain.
  3. It's covering your hands, joints or face.

If you have any of the symptoms above, go to the ER immediately for professional treatment to avoid infections and scarring. "Those are the two biggest things we worry about when it comes to deep burns," says Dr. Torres.

If you decide to treat a minor burn at home, call your doctor if you feel any of the following symptoms:

  • The pain gets worse or more frequent.
  • Signs of infection are evident.
  • Any other related symptoms you may be worried about.

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