Burns: learn first aid

Adult first aid for someone who has a burn including signs, symptoms and how to protect it from infection.

What are burns and scalds?

Burns and scalds occur when excessive heat damages the skin. Burns are caused by dry heat (for example, a fire), and scalds are caused by something wet (like hot water). You can treat burns and scalds in the same way.

Signs and symptoms of burns and scalds

A burn or scald may be painful, and you may notice red or peeling skin, blisters, swelling or white and charred skin. 

First aid steps for someone with a burn or scald

Step 1. Cool the burn under cold running water for at least 20 minutes.

Cooling the burn is important because it will reduce pain, swelling and the risk of scarring. The sooner and longer a burn is cooled with cold running water, the less the impact of the injury.

Cool the burn

Step 2. After the burn has been cooled, loosely cover it with cling film or a clean plastic bag.

This helps prevent infection by keeping the area clean. Cling film or plastic won’t stick to the burn and will reduce pain by keeping air from the skin’s surface.

Don’t try to remove clothes or anything that is stuck to the burn as it may cause more damage. You can remove clothing that is near the burn but not stuck to it.

Cover the burn

Step 3. Call 999 if you think the burn is serious.

Get medical advice if you're not sure or if a baby or child has been burned. 

Call 999 burns

Watch Michelle's video to learn first aid for burns

Meet Michelle, a parent who provided first aid to her baby when he was scalded by boiling water. Skip to 1:15 for the key first aid steps.

Frequently asked questions about burns first aid


Should I cool the burn for 20 minutes first or should I go straight to hospital?

Cool the burn under cold running water immediately and for at least 20 minutes.

If necessary, call 999 while you are cooling the burn. Continue to cool the burn until the ambulance arrives.


Can I use a shower or cold bath to cool a burn?

A shower is a good way of flooding the burn with cold water to help the cooling. Focus the water on the site of the burn rather than the whole limb or body. The water should be cold and at low pressure.

Avoid putting their whole body under a cold shower or in a cold bath as it could induce hypothermia.


What should I do if the burn is still painful after I have cooled it for 20 minutes and covered it with cling film?

Burns will often be painful even after cooling them. You can give an appropriate dose of painkillers and reassure the person who has been burned to help them remain calm.

Always seek medical advice for a baby or child who has been burned.


Should I put butter, cream or toothpaste on a burn?

No. Butter, cream or toothpaste will not cool the area. Butter and cream contain oils. Oils retain heat, which is the opposite of what you’re trying to do. Toothpaste often contains menthol, which may give a superficial feeling of cooling, but does not effectively help a burn.

If you put anything on top of a burn and it later needs to be removed in hospital, it may cause further pain and damage.


Should I use ice to cool the burn?

No, ice could damage the skin.

Use cold water to cool the burn. If you don't have access to cold running water, pour other cold liquids such as milk, soft drinks or beer over the burn to cool it.


How do I know when to go to hospital for a burn?

Seek immediate medical advice if an adult has burned their face or genital area, or if you are in any doubt about how severe the burn is.

If a baby or child has been burned, seek medical advice, making sure you cool their burn for at least 20 minutes first.

Why do I always have to seek medical advice if a baby or child has been burned?

Burns can be very dangerous, depending on the age of the child and the size, depth and location of the injury. Even small burns can be potentially life-threatening to a baby or child, so always seek medical advice.

To learn first aid for a baby or child who has a burn, visit our first aid for babies and children section.


Should I put a plaster over a burn to make sure it doesn't get infected?

No, don’t use any adhesive bandages as they’ll stick to the skin and can cause further damage.

After cooling, cover the burn with cling film or a clean plastic bag to help prevent infection.


Where can I find more information about first aid for burns?

If you have any other questions about first aid for someone who has a burn, visit the NHS website. During life-threatening emergencies, call 999, or for non-emergency medical help, call 111.

To test your knowledge about burns first aid, try our First aid app quiz.