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What is a second-degree burn?
A second-degree burn is a mild to moderate burn, and it’s the most common type. A burn is tissue damage caused by a heat, chemical or light source. A second-degree burn damages the outer layer of your skin (epidermis) and the second layer of your skin (dermis). It’s less severe than a third-degree burn. You can treat most second-degree burns at home.
What does a second-degree burn look like?
Features of a second-degree burn include:
- Skin discoloration: deep red to dark brown.
- Shiny, moist skin.
- Pain or discomfort.
- Layers of skin peeling away.
How do second-degree burns differ from other types of burns?
There are three main degrees of burns. You can identify what type of burn you have by its appearance. A first-degree burn may only cause skin discoloration. A second-degree burn includes blisters, a darker tone and a shiny, moist appearance. A third-degree burn may cause your skin to turn black and dry out. You may have second-degree burn symptoms with third-degree symptoms in the same area. You can have symptoms of several types of burns in the same place.
Where are common locations of second-degree burns?
The location of a second-degree burn varies based on the cause. Some common locations you could get a second-degree burn include your:
- Arms or legs.
What are the most common causes of second-degree burns?
There are several ways that you can get a second-degree burn. Some of the most common causes of second-degree burns include:
- Fire flames.
- Hot objects.
- Sunburn (ultraviolet radiation).
- Scalding from steam or boiling water.
- Certain chemicals.
- Electric shock.
What happens to your skin during a second-degree burn?
During a second-degree burn, a heat, chemical or light source destroys and goes through the first and second layers of your skin. This causes damage to the cells in your skin. Cell damage triggers your immune system to activate to prevent further damage to your body. You may experience skin discoloration and swelling, which is a sign that your immune system is actively working to heal your injury. As your body repairs itself after a burn, dead skin cells leave your body as your skin peels and flakes at the site of your burn.
Care and Treatment
How do you treat a second-degree burn?
If you have a small second-degree burn (less than 3 inches in diameter), you can treat it at home:
- Use cool water to gently wash your burn. Try to keep your burn area under water for at least five minutes, up to 30 minutes. Gently pat the burn dry with a clean towel.
- Cover your burn with a clean bandage or wound dressing like non-stick gauze.
- Avoid touching your burn or placing clothing on your skin that can cause friction or rub against your wound.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) as recommended by your provider if you experience pain.
- Change your bandage at least once daily.
A common prescription cream to treat second-degree burns is silver sulfadiazine (Silvadene®). If you have an infected burn, which is a burn that’s extremely painful, swollen and leaks pus, see a healthcare provider. They may prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection from your body.
Should I let my second-degree burn air out?
You should keep your burn covered for the first few days after the event as you let your skin heal. Make sure your blisters stay closed on your skin. If a blister breaks open, you should keep your burn covered with a bandage to prevent an infection. If the blister isn’t broken, you can let your burn air out or breathe without a bandage.
What are the stages of healing for a second-degree burn?
Your second-degree burn will undergo three stages of healing:
- React: When you get a burn, your body will activate your immune system via inflammation. This causes swelling and skin discoloration, as your immune system works to heal your body.
- Repair: The second stage is happening below the surface of your skin. Your cells are working together to fix the damage to your skin by getting rid of damaged tissue to make room for the new skin and tissue to grow.
- Remodel: The third stage of healing is when your body creates a scar. Your body closes any gaps in your tissue caused by the burn and fills it with collagen, a protein within your skin. Sometimes, your scar is visible and other times, the area where your skin closed together looks natural.
The healing process can take several weeks after a second-degree burn.
How can second-degree burns be prevented?
Burns are preventable. You can prevent burns by:
- Not touching hot surfaces.
- Avoiding open flames.
- Wearing protective gear like gloves when working with hot objects or chemicals.
- Keeping hot items out of reach of children.
- Testing the temperature of your child’s food or beverages before giving them to them.
- Reducing the temperature of the hot water in your home.
- Covering electrical outlets and making sure live cords are out of reach of children.
- Wearing sunscreen when you go outside.
Will my skin scar after a second-degree burn?
Scarring is possible with second-degree burns. Not everyone will get a scar after a burn, and scars are more likely if you have a large, more serious burn. Your skin may appear lighter or darker than your natural skin tone after a burn. This is usually a long-term change to your skin tone that may fade over time.
How long will it take for my second-degree burn to heal?
On average, it can take one week to three weeks for your skin to heal after a second-degree burn. This timeframe can vary based on the size and location of your burn.
When to Call the Doctor
When should second-degree burns be treated by a healthcare provider?
Visit a healthcare provider if your burn:
- Covers a large area of your skin (more than 3 inches in diameter).
- Affects your ability to use certain parts of your body.
- Shows signs of an infection.
Children younger than 5 years old, people above 70 years old or people with a compromised immune system should have their burns treated by a healthcare provider.
What are the symptoms of an infected second-degree burn?
An infected burn needs medical attention. Visit a healthcare provider if your second-degree burn has the following signs of infection:
- Severe pain.
- Burn leaks pus-like fluid.
- Skin discoloration spreads beyond your burn site.
- A foul odor from your burn site.
Visit the emergency room if you develop a fever along with any of these symptoms.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between each type of burn?
The main difference between each type of burn is the depth of damage beneath your skin:
- First-degree burn: Only the top layer of your skin has damage.
- Second-degree burn: The top and middle layers of your skin have damage.
- Third-degree burn: The first, second and third layers of your skin have damage, including parts of the fatty layer of subcutaneous fat.
- Fourth-degree burn: The burn reaches past the subcutaneous fat and destroys muscle tissue, nerves and tendons.
- Fifth-degree burn: The burn extends into your muscle.
- Sixth-degree burn: The burn damages your bones.
Each of these burns will look different on your skin. Visit a healthcare provider if you’re unsure what type of burn you have. You can have more than one type of burn at the same time.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Second-degree burns are the most common type of burn. You may have some discomfort on your skin as the burn heals, and scarring is possible. They’re preventable, but you can treat accidental burns at home if your burn is small. If your burn covers a large area of your skin or if you show signs of an infection, visit a healthcare provider.
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