A first degree burn is a burn that has only affected the top layer of skin, the epidermis. These burns do not typically cause any long term damage and heal on their own. A majority of first degree burns occur from accidents in the home or during recreational activities and can be avoided by taking simple precautions.
Coloration: Depending on the severity of the burn, the skin around the burn sight will turn pink or red. Even minor burns damage the skin enough to cause inflammation. Inflammation leads to a release of histamines that cause the capillaries to dilate. When the capillaries dilate, more blood flows to the surface of the skin causing coloration.
Pain: In addition to causing dilation of the capillaries, inflammation can put pressure on the nerves located in the dermis. The nerves relay this sensation to the brain which registers it as pain. People experience pain differently, but pain from a first degree burn should be manageable with over-the-counter medication. If the pain is too severe to be managed by over-the-counter medication, seek medical attention to treat any underlying conditions or complications.
Dryness/itchiness: Heat from first degree burns causes the skin to lose much of its moisture content and prevents oil glands from producing oil at the site of the burn. These factors lead to dry skin which in turn leads to itchiness.
Peeling: Peeling occurs when a burn damages living cells in the stratum granulosum, stratum spinosum, or stratum basale—the bottom three layers of the epidermis. The body is forced to discard these dead cells resulting in peeling. Burns that only affect the stratum corneum—the top layer of the epidermis—do not peel because the stratum corneum is composed entirely of dead cells.
Removing the source of the burn is the first step in treating any burn. First degree burns can turn into second degree burns or worse if the burn source is permitted to continue transferring energy into the skin.
Cool the affected area by holding it under cool running water. If running water isn’t available, immerse the burned area in cool water or use cold compresses. Cooling draws the heat out of the skin and helps reduce swelling.
Cover the burned area. Burned skin is very sensitive and vulnerable to tearing. Coverings work as a protective layer to prevent stress to the skin. Sterile gauze bandages make an effective cover because they offer little irritation. Avoid wrapping the area too tight as pressure can worsen swelling and cause unnecessary pain.
Watch the affected area for signs of complications. Excessive pain or swelling, fever, and/or oozing may be signs of infection or other complications that require professional medical attention. Use an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen, to combat pain and reduce swelling. Always follow dosage advice listed on the bottle. If the pain is too severe for over-the-counter medication, seek professional medical attention. Speak with your physician if you have concerns.