May 18, 2022, 9:40:40 AM CDT Oct 10, 2023, 2:44:09 PM CDT

Preventing and treating burns in children

Learn what to do for a burn on a child and when to see a doctor

Mom holding daughter in the kitchen Mom holding daughter in the kitchen

Ouch! As much as we try to protect our little ones, many children suffer accidental burns in and around their homes – from hot water, stovetops and appliances, steam, curling irons, open flames and even the hot sun.

"You name the burn injury, I've probably seen or read about it," says Kelley Smith, M.D., a pediatrician with Children's Health℠. "When curious toddlers reach for hot objects, they burn their fingers. Some children suffer burns from hot tap water flowing from their bathroom faucet. Splash burns from hot coffee, water and soup are very common, too."

How to prevent burns in children

When cooking and preparing food, keep young children out of the kitchen. You can place babies and toddlers in high chairs, pack 'n plays or child seats. You can also use fencing to barricade the kitchen and create a safe space for your little ones to play. And stay watchful.

"Keep in mind – nothing is entirely childproof. I've seen quite a few little climbers in my time. High gates don't always keep children out, but hopefully, they will buy you a little time to run to the child before they reach the hot object," says Dr. Smith.

Other tips to prevent burns in children:

  • Place pots and pans on the back of the stove where little ones cannot reach.
  • Keep children away from hot coffee cups and soup bowls.
  • Teach children kitchen safety rules and supervise them if they are helping cook.
  • Set the temperature on your water heater to 120 degrees or less.
  • Keep appliances out of the reach of children.
  • Store hot curling irons on wall mounts or in ceramic jars.
  • Keep electrical cords and space heaters out of reach.
  • Install smoke detectors and check batteries periodically.
  • Use sunscreen to prevent sunburns.
  • Keep your littles away from hot grills, charcoal and firepits.

How to recognize different degrees of burns in children

If your child does get burned, you may wonder how serious the burn is. Doctors rank burns in three levels:

  • First-degree burn: First-degree burns affect only the top layer of skin. If your child gets a first-degree burn, the skin will turn red and hurt, but it will not blister.
  • Second-degree burn: With a second-degree burn, you'll typically see a blister form on the skin. Both the outer and underlying layers of skin are damaged. Second-degree burns are very painful.
  • Third-degree burn: With third-degree burns, several layers of skin are damaged. The burn is painful, and the skin may look white or charred. The nerve endings in the skin are affected, meaning the child cannot feel anything in that area. Blisters may form.

How to treat first-degree or minor burns in children

To care for minor burns, rinse the burned skin with cool, running water for several minutes.

"Cool water from the tap will help lessen the pain and rinse off the hot agent – soup, coffee, food or whatever caused the burn," says Dr. Smith. "Once the area is cool, gently pat the skin dry."

To help the burn heal and reduce the risk of scars, apply plain petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline or a store brand. Cover the burned area with a large, sterile bandage to keep it clean and moist. Remember to change the dressing several times a day and clean the wound if your child gets dirty while playing.

Should you use burn creams for babies and children?

You can use over-the-counter antibacterial ointments for burns. However, be aware that, in rare cases, some children have an allergic reaction to antibacterial ointments. If you've never applied these ointments to your child's cuts or injuries in the past, Dr. Smith suggests sticking with plain petroleum jelly to cover burns.

What should you NOT do to a burn?

  • Do not apply ice to a burn. The cold sensation may feel like it's burning the skin.
  • Do not apply grease or butter to a burn wound. This remedy is an old wives' tale. Grease and butter promote infection.

How to treat second-degree burns with blisters on a child

If a blister develops, your child probably has a second- or third-degree burn. Cover the blister, and don't pop it.

"That blister protects the skin underneath so it can heal. Breaking the blister increases the risk of infection," says Dr. Smith. "If the blister pops, you might need medical help to trim back the dead skin and clean the burn properly. Don't do that yourself."

When to see a doctor for your child's burns

For certain types of burns in children, it's important to seek medical care. See a doctor for:

  • All burns with blisters.
  • All second- and third-degree burns. If the burn covers a large surface area, your child may need skin grafting.
  • Facial burns. Consult your doctor if your child suffers a burn on the face. You'll need advice to reduce the risk of scarring.
  • Burns on the hands, feet or other joints. "We must take extra special care of burns that cover a joint, especially the hands. When blisters form and leave a scar, the child may have difficulty moving the hand and fingers," says Dr. Smith. "Scars affect the movement of the joint."
  • All burns on a child's private parts. "Burns on the genitalia are considered serious, so please see your medical care provider," says Dr. Smith. "Burns can certainly happen innocently during a bath or splash accident, but they do raise questions: How did this happen? Is the child in a safe environment? It's a good idea to have the details documented."

If you are worried about any burns, ask your pediatrician to take a look. In addition, for certain burns, your child may need a tetanus shot.

"When children suffer second- or third-degree burns, the skin is broken, putting them at risk for tetanus. Check to make sure your child's tetanus shots are up to date," advises Dr. Smith.

When to take your baby or child to the hospital for a burn

Your pediatrician or family doctor can handle many types of burns. If the medical office is closed, you may need to go to the urgent care or emergency department.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you get medical attention right away from either a doctor or emergency department for:

  • Electrical burns
  • Skin that is charred, leathery or burned away
  • Skin that has no feeling
  • Any blistering, swollen burn that covers an area larger than the size of your child's hand
  • Burns on the hand, foot, face, genitals or over a joint

Does burn treatment differ for babies and older children?

"Yes, we have to be very cautious with burns on babies and toddlers," says Dr. Smith. "They can cry but can't tell us exactly what hurts."

The size of the burn matters too. The more surface area burned, the more serious. Larger burns may require more care and possible skin grafting.

Also, burns can cause dehydration for babies and children of all ages. Even teens may need IV fluid if burns are significant.

How long does it take for a burn to heal?

A first-degree burn usually heals in about a week. Burns of a higher degree take 2-4 weeks, depending on the size of the burn, whether it got infected and whether it needs skin grafting. It's good to keep burns bandaged until the pain is gone and they're fully healed.

How to reduce the appearance of scars from burns

To minimize scarring from a burn:

  1. Keep the burn clean, moist and covered.
  2. When completely healed, cover the burned area with sunscreen before going outdoors.
  3. Wear a rash guard, shirt or pants to protect burn scars from the sun.

Learn more

The team at Children's Health is here to care for all aspects of your child's health, from well-child exams and treatment of common illnesses to treatment of chronic conditions. Learn more about our primary care services.

If your child needs emergency care, our pediatric emergency rooms are always here for you. You can also view our Children's Health PM Urgent Care locations.

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