Meet Jack

That cute little guy you see up above is 3 year old Jack (and his lovely mama Christine). Christine is a gal pal of mine who called me one day asking for a little help after Jack burned his hand on a curling iron that he managed to get ahold of. Trust me when I tell you this isn’t the first time someone has asked for help when minor burns happen and it likely won’t be the last. It can be hard to know how to treat burns and what to put on them as they heal. It’s easy when things are bad enough to go to the doctor (we’ll talk about knowing when it’s time for that, too) but it can get tricky when you’re tasked with managing minor or healing burns at home on your own. So let’s see if we can clear up the waters a bit, eh?

First, if you’re a parent of a wee one who’s somehow managed to burn themselves under your watchful eye I have some advice for you: take a deep breath and don’t give in to the mom (or dad) guilt. These things happen. Kids are quick and it’s in their nature to explore the world around them. Sometimes they end up with bumps and bruises along the way.

How bad is the burn?

Most minor burns (affecting only the most superficial layer of skin and referred to as 1st degree burns) can be managed safely at home. 2nd and 3rd degree burns are deeper burns that affect the deeper layers of skin and tissue underneath and should be evaluated by a medical professional. So how do you know the difference? The easiest way might be to consider how the burn looks:

First degree (most superficial) Can display redness and pain.
Second degree (involves deeper skin layer)Swelling and red, white or splotchy skin occurs. There might be blisters. Pain is more severe. Can result in scarring.
Third degree (deepest, can involve tissue under skin)Color may be black, brown, or white.
This type of burn can damage nerves, resulting in numbness; pain may be less.
(Burns 2020)

When to go in and when to stay home

Like I mentioned above, most minor burns can be handled completely appropriately at home. There are certain things to look for that can clue you into the need to see your doctor or head to the emergency room. It’s a good idea to get the burn checked out if these things show up:

Burns that cover a large portion of the body.
Burns that affect the face, hands, feet, buttocks, or groin.
Burns that are deeper than the superficial skin.
Burns that look white, black, or brown in color.
Burns that were caused by chemicals or electricity
Any burn that is accompanied by difficulty breathing or any burn involving the airway. Also seek emergency care if smoke inhalation of any kind has occurred.
(Burns 2020)

How bad was Jack’s burn?

Above you can see the progression of Jack’s burn from day one through day 4 following injury. Fortunately, Jack’s burn falls under the 1st degree burn category so when Christine called, I was able to scamper on over to her house and check it out with some pretty basic supplies on hand.

Jack’s mom is a pretty smart cookie so she had already taken care of cooling the burn off with some cool or cold water. This practice helps minimize discomfort and also simultaneously helps to wash away any debris that might have snuck in. The next thing we did with Jack’s burn was to work out some kind of dressing for the burn. The general rule for home burn dressings is to apply petroleum jelly and then a non-stick dressing. The real key here is to remember the importance of non-stick dressings. If you find that whatever dressing you’ve applied has stuck to the burn, soak it until it removes easily without damaging the healing tissue underneath.

You can find a few different non-stick dressings at your local drug store. I’ve linked one option here but any non-stick pad will work. You can cut them to fit the size of the area you need and save the rest for later. There are also petroleum jelly treated gauze options like this but these are a bit pricier and aren’t necessary if you’ve applied petroleum jelly to the burn (How to treat a first-degree, minor burn 2021). After you get those two things on the burn, wrapping it with gauze or securing it in a way that will stand the test of time is the final step. I like using gauze rolls like these but you might find that securing with paper tape works better and that’s a-okay.

So how often do you have to play arts and crafts and change this dressing? A good rule of thumb is to change the dressing at least every day, and certainly if the dressing becomes loose or isn’t providing adequate coverage of the burn. Changing the dressing also allows you to check the burn for signs of infection which would prompt a visit to your local clinic to make sure antibiotics aren’t needed. Burns are open skin and bacteria can and does get in there. Below are some signs of infection that you should watch for:

Redness at the site, most notably around the edges of the burn
Swelling of the burned area
Worse pain in the area of the burn
Any odor or drainage from the burn
The development of fever, sweats, or chills
(Patient Education 2021)

What if the burn blisters?

A lot of burns blister. It’s the natural process that occurs when the superficial damaged skin separates from the skin underneath. There are varying opinions on whether to pop blisters or not. I generally recommend leaving intact blisters alone unless they’re large and are putting pressure on the area. What Christine found herself faced with were several blisters on Jack’s hand that ruptured on their own. Ruptured blisters should be debrided (a fancy term for clipping away the dead skin that used to be a blister) to help minimize chances of infection (Tenenhaus & Rennekampff, 2019). This can be done with a nail clippers or small scissors that have been cleaned with rubbing alcohol or boiled to sterilize prior to use. This sounds scarier than it is: it usually doesn’t hurt because the skin being removed is already dead. Jack’s mom took on the task and did a fantastic job and her skills can be seen above here, leaving fresh, healing skin behind:

Dealing with pain

An unfortunate side effect of minor burns is that they’re often accompanied by pain. The good news is there are things you can do to minimize discomfort. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be given in age and weight appropriate doses. Click the links for references on dosing. Check with your doctor to make sure there isn’t a reason you or your child shouldn’t take these medications.

Elevating the burned area can help minimize swelling which can help decrease discomfort. Typically keeping the affected area above the level of the heart is ideal. An ice pack applied to the outside of the dressing can also help keep things a little more comfortable.

And of course, if it’s your little that’s burned, a few extra snuggles from mom or dad does wonders for healing.

Your burn is healing, now what?

Fortunately for little Jack, his burn healed well without infection or any other issues. His mom kept it dressed with Vaseline and a non-stick pad until the new skin became stronger and then Jack was off and running again, back to his usual self. There are some things to keep in mind while burns are healing and even after they’ve healed. Burns heal with new skin which is a bit more delicate and prone to dryness and sun burn.

Keeping the area moisturized is important. Try to avoid products that contain alcohol or fragrances and these are irritants and may impede proper moisture content of the skin. Additionally, keeping the burned area away from the sun is also critically important because new skin and scar tissue tend to burn far more easily and often times once they’re pink, they don’t always lose that color. Applying a sun protectant with SPF 30 or higher is a good idea. There are a number of zinc oxide based sun screens that I personally prefer that are deemed safe by both the FDA and dermatologists. Here’s a link to a few you can check out.

In a Nutshell

Minor (1st degree burns) can usually be treated at home. 2nd and 3rd degree (deeper) deserve a visit to the clinic
Run new burns under cool or cold water for 10-15 minutes after the burn occurs
Apply petroleum jelly and a non-stick dressing to the burn, change daily or more often if the dressing gets dirty or comes loose
Leave blisters alone. If they pop, clip away dead skin gently
Once the burn has healed, keep the area moisturized. Apply moisturizer at least daily
Keep the area away from sun for at least a year and ideally longer to prevent burning and scarring

A big thank you to Christine and Jack for allowing me the privilege of sharing this story here with all of you.

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Burns. (2020, July 28). Retrieved January 03, 2021, from

Children & Infants Dosage by Age & Weight for MOTRIN® Products. (n.d.). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from

How to treat a first-degree, minor burn. (n.d.). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from

Patient Education. (n.d.). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from

Tenenhaus, M., MD, & Rennekampff, H., MD. (2019, June 10). Treatment of superficial burns requiring hospital admission. Retrieved January 03, 2021, from

TYLENOL® Dosing for Infants, Children & Adults. (n.d.). Retrieved January 04, 2021, from

Any product recommendations or references made here were not compensated in any way and are merely presented as examples or for educational purposes.

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