Minor Burns in the Emergency Department

A 26 year-old female presented to the ED 20 minutes after spilling a hot sauce pan of soup onto her left forearm. The soup had just been brought to boil when the accident occurred. First aid was applied on arrival by placing the burn under under cold running water for 20 minutes.

Minor burns in the Emergency Department

  • Minor burns are an important emergency department encounter because early treatment affecst the final outcome and keeping up-to-date with current treatment recommendations is challenging.
  • They pose a high medico-legal risk to the clinician and there is the potential for psychological morbidity if scarring occurs.
  • A study from Western Australia (Rea and Wood, 2005) looked at 10 months of minor burn injuries presenting to the regional burns unit. It showed that of the 227 patients, 45% sustained a scald, 19% a flame burn, 16% a contact burn, and 7.8% had a chemical burn. Of concern, 61% of the referred patients had not received appropriate first aid prior to referral.

Classification of Burns

Burns can be classified according to the body surface area that is involved:

  • Minor Burns involve 10% TBSA or less
  • Moderate Burns involve 11% to 20 of TBSA
  • Major Burns involve 20% to 60% of TBSA
  • Severe Burns involve >60% of TBSA

Types of Burns

There are 4 main types of burns that occur:

  • Thermal
  • Chemical
  • Electrical
  • Radiological

Classification of depth of burn injury

Burns are also classifed according to the depth of injury:

  • Superficial — involves the epithelium: burns appear pink, red, painful, and generally take 7-10 days to heal. Sunburn is the classic example.
  • Partial thickness — involves the epidermis and some dermis: appears mottled pink, painful, hairs intact, and generally take 2-3 weeks to heal. Scarring may occur, particularly if healing is delayed and skin grafts may be required.
  • Full thickness — extends through the skin to deeper structures: appears black or white (eschar), leathery, produces no response to pain, and hairs are absent. Skin grafts are required.

Pathophysiology of burn injuries

The local response to a burn injury is described as consisting of three zones:

  1. Zone of coagulative necrosis results from the direct thermal injury at time of exposure.
  2. Zone of stasis borders the site of coagulation necrosis, there is a prominent inflammatory response and vascular reactivity that reduces blood flow. This reduction in flow occurs for the first 24-48 hours after the burn occurs.
  3. Zone of hyperaemia is the outermost area of the burn injury and is characterised by intense yet reversible vasodilatation and increased blood flow.

Thermal injuries trigger an intense local and systemic inflammatory response, with increased capillary permeability causing fluids and proteins to leak from the vascular space. This leakage can lead to oedema and hypovolaemia in extensive burns.

3 Zones of Burn Injury

Assessment of the Minor Burn

Describe the mechanism of injury:

  • What type of burn agent (scald, flame, electrical, chemical)?
  • How did it come in contact with the patient?
  • What first aid was performed?
  • What treatment has been started?
  • Are there concomitant injuries (e.g. falls, explosion, traffic accident)?
  • Is there evidence inhalation injury?

Define the timing of injury and treatment:

  • When did the injury occur?
  • How long was patient exposed to energy source?
  • How long was cooling applied?

Describe the burn injury:


  • What was the liquid? Was it boiled or recently boiled?
  • If tea or coffee, was milk in it?
  • Was a solute present  in the liquid? (this may raise the boiling temperature causing a more severe injury, such as boiling rice)

Electrical Injuries

  • What was the voltage (domestic or industrial)?
  • Was there a flash or arcing?
  • Contact time?

Chemical Injuries:

  • What was the chemical?

Burns suitable for outpatient management

No significant comorbidites and:

  • Partial thickness burns covering <10% of total body surface area in adults
  • Partial thickness burns covering <5% of body surface area in children
  • Full thickness burns covering <1% of body surface

When to refer to the burns unit

  • Partial thickness burns >10% TBSA, full thickness >5% total body surface area.
  • Partial/full thickness burns in children >5% TBSA.
  • Priority areas are involved, i.e. face/neck, hands, feet, perineum, genitalia, and major joints.
  • Burns caused by chemical or electricity, including lightning.
  • Any circumferential burn.
  • Burns with concomitant trauma or preexisting medical conditions.
  • Burns with associated inhalation injury.
  • Pregnancy with cutaneous burns.

Emergency Department Management of Minor Thermal Burns

The 4 main aims of burns treatment are:

  • Protection from the environment (infection)
  • Temperature control (hypothermia)
  • Fluid control (dehydration)
  • Energy control (need for increased caloric intake)

First Aid

  • Initial first aid should consist of cool running water (2-15°C), applied for a 20 minute duration. This should be performed as soon as possible but may be effective up to 3 hours after the burn occurred.
  • The application of cool running water has been shown to significantly reduce soft tissue damage, hastens wound re-epithelialisation and reduces scaring.
  • Ice should be avoided although effective at relieving pain, can cause a thermal burn in itself to the already damaged epithelial cells.
  • All alternative therapies should be avoided as effectiveness has not been demonstrated in the literature. Do not smear the burn with butter!
  • In Australia most prehospital provider service have adopted the use of Burnaid® dressings — a hydrocolloid type dressing that contains tea tree oil.
    • They are marketed to relieve pain, infection and inflammation. However current evidence has shown no antibacterial effects against common burn pathogens and allergic contact dermatitis is a common adverse effect.
    • It is amazing that these product are being used so frequently with very little evidence to support their use. They did not reduce scarring or inflammation in a porcine model although  they are effective at cooling burns. They should be avoided in patients with over 20% TBSA due to the risk of hypothermia.

Cleaning burns

  • Burns are at high risk of infection as breakdown of the epidermis denudes the body of a strong protective barrier against micro-organisms.
  • All burns that are contaminated, or have been deroofed or debrided, should be throughly irrigated.
  • Choosing between tap water or saline as the irrigating fluid does not alter outcome or infection risk, although the goal of trying to maintain a sterile envronment means most providers prefer to use saline.

Blister Management

  • This is a controversy that cannot be killed — should you leave blisters alone, aspirate them or de-roof them???
  • There is limited evidence available to guide clinical practice, which is largely based on expert opinion.
  • Leave the blisters alone?
    • pros — they provides an barrier for the burn site against infection.
    • cons — the underly damage to the epithelium cannot be visualised and the serous fluid in the blister may be impairing healing to the burn. The blister may impair joint functionality.
  • Many specialists now recommend de-roofing and debriding the blister, so the underlying wound bed can be assessed and managed accordingly, and so that any non-adherent de-vitalised tissue is debrided.
  • Follow local institutional guidelines or obtain specialist advice from your burns unit.


  • Choosing the correct dressing to manage these burns can be bewildering. Again, consulting local guidelines or obtaining specialist advice is wise.
  • Although there are many dressings available on the market to treat burns, there is little evidence to support the use of one over the other.
  • With appropriate wound management partial thickness burns should take around 10-12 days to heal.
  • The majority of superficial burns do not require a dressing, and should heal nicely with good first aid and  the application of emollient creams (e.g. sorbelene).
  • Partial thickness and full thickness burns require dressings to aid healing. Types of dressing available are hydrocolloid, silicon nylon, antimicrobial, polyurethane film and biosynthetic dressings.
  • The most common dressing I use on burns is the antimicrobial dressing Acticoat©, it contains the antimicrobial nano-crystalline silver.
    • Silver has been shown have excellent antimicrobial effects and starts killing bacteria within 30mins of application and last up to 3 days as long as the dressing is kept wet.
    • The dressing has a silver and a blue side — the blue side is placed onto the wound after the silver has to be activated with water for injection (do not use saline as it deactivates the silver). A second dressing needs to place over the to secure it, and allow for the dressing to retain moisture, occlusive dressings like Duoderm© works well for this. The dressing should be check daily to make sure it remains moist.
  • Silver Sulphadiazine (SSD) creams have been commonly used in the past for the treatment of burns, however their effectiveness has been questioned.
    • There is little evidence to suggest that SSD creams reduce bacterial infections in burns and local hypersensitivity reactions are common. Another downfall of SSD creams is they need to be removed and reapplied daily. This is  inconvenient and expensive.
    • Most burns units have stopped recommending the use of SSD creams

Image from:www.cardinal.com


  • Superficial and partial thickness burns are generally painful as nociceptors are intact.
  • Simple analgesia like paracetamol and NSAIDs are generally effective for minor burns.
  • In the acute period IV opiates may be required.


  • Antibiotics are not recommend as prophylaxis for minor burns.
  • Appropriate first aid and ongoing sterile dressing changes decrease the risk of wound infection.
  • If signs of infection are present, wound swabs should be taken to guide appropriate antibiotic use.


  • Burns are high risk wounds for developing Clostridium tetani
  • Tetanus status should be determined early and an ADT booster provided as required.

Follow up

  • Follow up will depend on the patient’s location, access to a specialised burns clinic and the frequency of dressing changes required.
  • Remember the burn will look worse 2-3 days after it occurs, so early follow up 48-72 hours after the injury should be arranged.
  • Burns taking longer than 12-14days should be referred to the burns unit for assessment and to prevent scar formation.

Medico-legal Pitfalls

  • Failure to suspect that non-accidental injury could be the cause of burns in children
  • Not referring minor burns that are taking long time to heal, placing the patient at risk of scarring and psychosocial impairment.
  • Burns will always look worse the next day, early follow up will detect changes in the severity of the burn.

Keep following for next weeks post on “Managing Major Burns in the Emergency Department”.


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Burns Blister Management: Evidence Summary. (2009). Australasian Cochrane Centre

Cuttle, L. & Kimble, RM. (2010). First aid treatment of burn injuries. Wound Practise and Research. 18(1),6-13.

Ehrlich, A. et.al. (2005). Elderly patients discharged home from the emergency department with minor burns. Burns. 31, 717-720. PMID: 16039785

Gomez, R. & Cancio, L. (2007). Management of Burn Wounds in the Emergency Department. Emergency Medicine Clinics of North America. 25, 135-146. PMID: 17400077

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Hettiaratchy, S. Papini, R. & Dziewulski, P. (2005). ABC of Burns. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing

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Hussain, S. & Ferguson, C. (2005). Cooling as analgesia for burns. www.bestbets.org

Hussain, S. & Ferguson, C. (2006). Silver Sulphadiazine cream in burns.www.bestbets.org

Martin, R. (2007). Do Burnshield® dressings reduce the analgesia requirements and length of stay of for emergency patients. Australasian Emergency Nursing Journal. 208-209.

Rea, S. Kuthubutheen, J. Fowler, B. & Wood, F. (2005). Burn first aid in Western Australia- Do healthcare workers have the knowledge? Burns. 1029-1034. PMID: 16308098

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Singer, A. (2000). Thermal Burns: Rapid Assessment and Treatment. Emergency Medicine Practise. 2(9),1-20.

Wasiak, J. Cleland, H. & Campbell, F. (2009). Dressings for superficial and partial thickness burns (Review).The Cochrane Collaboration

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  1. says

    If I may take a few moments of your time to let you know of a tried and tested aid for burns victims, which is now available in Australia.

    The ‘Bradford Sling®’ was invented by Professor Sharpe and proved to be a much-needed tool during treatment of the Bradford fire victims. Professor David Sharpe was a consultant on call at Bradford Royal Infirmary on the weekend of the fire and led a team of surgeons from all parts of the country to help the injured supporters. It was during the treatment of the supporters that a piece of medical equipment demonstrated its great effectiveness; with it going on to be used by many hospitals throughout the UK for many years ever since.

    The Bradford Sling is now available in Australia, from HealthSaver, and more details can be found on our web site at http://www.healthsaver.com.au/a/Products/The_Bradford_Sling_by_Salitas

    Many thanks for your time.

  2. factchecker says

    To the editor, you mentioned that cold water can be effective for minor burns even if immediate treatment does not occur, if there is a minor burn from hot water from a tap, aka a few seconds at say 130-150 degrees Fahrenheit and cold water is applied 20 minutes later, is that effective, often times folks touch hot water and do not feel the need to use cold water, or in many cases, cold water was not available, aka for instance if you go to a food service establishment and the sink water is hot not warm due to a plumbing issue.

    My question is if cold water is not applied immediately to a minor burn (little red on skin), does the burn or scald I should say become more serious (the heat source is removed, no clothing/chemicals,
    and effect tissue underneath to the extent of a second or third degree burn, even though little evidence of a burn is present (aka redness).