January 10, 2023

Never Put Ice on a Burn

Ice (and icy water) can actually make a burn worse, not better

Water stream from faucet falls on burn located on hand.

You feel a splash of boiling water, bump the edge of the hot stovetop or accidentally brush your ear with your curling iron. Ouch! When you feel the heat of a burn, your first instinct might be to cool it down — and the faster, the better.

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But should you put ice on a fresh burn?

No.

Resist the urge to run to the freezer for an ice cube. Ice on a burn might seem like a good idea, but it can damage your skin. “Even ice-cold water can damage tissues and increase your risk of infection,” says urgent care physician Allan Capin, MD.

There’s a better way to handle a burn that won’t further traumatize your skin. Dr. Capin describes different types of burns and what to do to cool the heat, help the wound heal and minimize scarring.

Why no ice on a burn? And what should you do instead?

Ice or very cold water on a burn decreases blood flow to the burnt area, which can reverse the healing process. According to Dr. Capin, the application of ice numbs the burn, which can lead to frostnip, a dangerous precursor to frostbite.

An ice burn is a bigger risk than you might think. “Because the skin is already damaged from the heat burn, you may not feel that the ice is making your skin too cold,” he adds. “That can lead to permanent blood flow problems.”

So, what should you do for a burn instead of ice or icy water? That depends on how bad your burn is.

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How to treat a minor burn (first-degree burn)

A minor burn, also called a first-degree burn, is warm, red and painful, but there’s no blistering. You can get a first-degree burn from touching a hot object or getting splashed with a hot liquid. A sunburn with no blisters also falls into this category.

So, should you put ice on a minor burn? Dr. Capin says no.

Here’s how to ease the pain of a first-degree burn:

  1. Use cool (not cold) water: Apply cool water for five to 20 minutes by running tap water over the burn, dipping the burned area in water or using a clean, wet towel.
  2. Moisturize: After the skin has cooled, lightly apply a moisturizer like aloe vera.
  3. Protect: Use a clean, dry cloth or nonstick bandage to protect the burn from pressure or rubbing against anything.
  4. Treat the pain: Take ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®) if the burn is still painful.
  5. Clean and prevent infection: While the burn heals, clean it with mild soap as needed and use an antibiotic cream to prevent infection.

Get medical attention for a first-degree burn if it:

  • Is more than three inches wide.
  • Covers a joint.
  • Is on your face, neck, hand or foot.
  • Is causing pain that doesn’t go away.
  • Hasn’t healed in one to two weeks.

Even a first-degree burn can become infected, so if your burn starts taking a turn for the worse, go to urgent care or the emergency room. Symptoms to watch for include:

  • Fever.
  • Pus.
  • Increased pain.
  • Expanded area of pain.

But here’s one thing that isn’t usually a cause for concern: Dr. Capin says the burned skin may turn a bit darker as it heals — and that’s just part of the healing process. With a minor burn, it usually isn’t anything to worry about.

How to treat a burn with a blister (second-degree burn)

A burn that causes a blister is a second-degree burn, and it’s more serious than a minor (first-degree) burn.

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Here’s what to do (and not do) when you have a second-degree burn:

  • Use cool, clean running water: Don’t use water that might be contaminated, like from a lake, river or stream, as bacteria in the water may cause an infection. If you don’t have access to tap water, use bottled water. It’s also OK to use a clean, wet towel.
  • Don’t pull clothing away from the burn: If anything is stuck to the burn, don’t pull it off. Let healthcare providers at urgent care or the emergency room do that for you.
  • Don’t use any ointments or sprays: Butter, oil, ointment and first-aid sprays will slow the release of heat from your skin, making the wound worse.
  • Never pop the blister: “The skin beneath the blistered area can become infected,” Dr. Capin warns.
  • Seek care ASAP: Head to urgent care, the emergency room or your healthcare provider to have your burn cleaned properly, which will help avoid infection. You may also be given a prescription for a burn cream (Silvadene®) that helps the burn heal and prevents infection.

Second-degree burns are at risk of tetanus. If it’s been a while since your last tetanus shot, your healthcare provider may want to give you one.

How to treat a very serious burn (third-degree)

If your skin is blackened or the burn goes down to the bone, you have a third-degree burn. This is a medical emergency, Dr. Capin says. Go straight to the emergency room.

Burn care: Better safe than sorry

A first- or second-degree burn may not seem like such a big deal. But burns are prone to infection, and second-degree burns usually leave a scar.

“Even if it’s a minor burn, it’s a good idea to go to urgent care,” Dr. Capin advises. “The right treatment will prevent damage to your skin and minimize the scar that’s left behind.”

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