How to Cure Second-Degree Burns Quickly, According to Experts

They're no joke.

How to Cure Second Degree Burns Quickly

If you have ever experienced the agony of getting a second-degree burn, then you know the road to recovery is a long one, factoring in the blistering, scabbing, healing, and reducing hyperpigmented marks it leaves behind. While this type of injury is fairly common (scorched by a hot tool, anyone?) second-degree burns are caused by "contact with heat, chemicals, radiation, electricity, extreme cold, or friction," explains Dr. Azadeh Shirazi, a California-based board-certified dermatologist. "The damage involves the epidermis, the top layer of the skin, and part of the dermis, the deeper layer, resulting in redness, pain, swelling, the skin breaking open, and blistering as the two skin layers separate."

Second-degree burns can actually send you to the hospital, but they're less severe than if you were to be in a car accident, for example. Depending on the severity, they may also leave a scar. The pain is harsh, the recovery is slow, and the peeling isn't exactly appealing. But there are steps you can take to speed up recovery and make the process a little easier.

We spoke to four dermatologists who break down what a second-degree burn actually is, how to quickly cure one, how to manage the pain, and more. Keep reading to see what they recommend for your burned skin.

What Is a Second-Degree Burn?

When people refer to the different degrees of burns, Dr. Brendan Camp, a Manhattan-based double board-certified dermatologist, explains that what that means is how deeply the burn affects the skin.

"By definition, a second-degree burn involves the top layer of skin, the epidermis, and the superficial portion of the second layer of skin, the dermis," he says.

He explains that some people divide second-degree burns into superficial and deep types, in which superficial second-degree burns affect only the superficial dermis and deep second degree-burns destroy most of the dermis.

What's the Best Way to Cure a Second-Degree Burn?

The best and most important time to act is right after experiencing the burn. If you burn your hands or fingers, Dr. Camp says to remove any jewelry that could potentially constrict blood flow as a result of swelling. If the affected area is on either your legs or arms, he says to keep the limb elevated to prevent swelling.

From there, Dr. Shirazi says to either run the area under cold water or to apply a cold compress for about 15 to 20 minutes. Whatever you do, though, she says to avoid ice as that could exacerbate the injury. Once that time is up and the wound area has been (gently) cleaned with antibacterial soap, Dr. Shirazi says to apply an ointment-based product, like CeraVe's Healing Ointment, to keep the area moist. The exception to this, she says, is if the wound was caused by heat as the ointment could then trap the heat in the skin. In this case, it's best to wait a little longer before applying an ointment.

"Topical silicone wound gels like Stratacell wound film early on are helpful particularly in the first 24 to 48 hours," she adds. Then, cover it with a non-stick pad to protect it before wrapping it in a gauze dressing. Doing so will protect the area from infection.

Side note: Since burns are susceptible to infections such as tetanus, Dr. Shirazi says to make sure your tetanus shot is up to date — within five years.

As the days progress, they both say to continue keeping the area clean by washing it with antibacterial soap and to keep moisturizing it. Dr. Dhaval Bhanusali, a Manhattan-based board-certified dermatologist and founder of Hudson Dermatology & Laser Surgery, says to apply Vaseline to the area between two to three times to speed up recovery. If the skin breaks though, he says it's paramount to visit a doctor for a prescription antibiotic.

Now, with second degree-burns come blisters. As tempting as it may be to pop them, our experts urge people to refrain from doing so. "They act as the best natural wound dressing," Dr. Shirazi explains. "It's your body's way of protecting the fragile skin underneath," adds Dr. Bhanusali. Plus, it increases the risk of infection.

In general, Dr. Camp says it typically takes second degree-burns to heal within 10 to 21 days — but with some degree of scarring. "When an injury is deep enough to affect the dermis it usually will leave some type of scar; the severity of the scar depends on the depth of the injury," he says.

What's the Best Way to Alleviate Pain From a Second-Degree Burn?

Immediately following the incident, the area may cause a lot of pain or discomfort for a few days. However, there are ways to make it more tolerable.

Directly following the incident, Dr. Camp says that running cold water over the area can help counter the heat and mentions that elevating the area above heart level can reduce throbbing sensations.

In terms of medications, Dr. Shirazi recommends taking Ibuprofen every four to six hours to reduce both pain and inflammation. "Topical anesthetics may be helpful," she adds but says they should only be used under the guidance of a physician.

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a First-, Second-, and Third-Degree Burn?

As aforementioned, the degree of the burn relates to how deeply it affects the skin. "First-degree burns are limited to the top layer of the skin and often don't break the skin surface or form blisters," says Dr. Shirazi. "They look red in light-colored skin and reddish-brown in darker skin tones." Dr. Bhanusali adds that they turn into dark patches rather quickly, and Dr. Camp says they heal without scarring.

Dr. Shirazi says that on the other hand, second-degree burns show a greater degree of swelling, pain, and often cause the skin to break open or blister as they damage the deeper skin layers.

Third-degree burns are a whole other, much more serious story — they affect the full thickness of the epidermis and dermis. "They present with dry, hard, numb or insensitive charred skin," says Dr. Camp. "Scarring is characteristic of third-degree burns, and some may lead to contractions that require surgical correction."

What's the Difference Between a Second-Degree Burn and Sunburn?

You may be thinking that since second-degree burns are caused by heat that they are similar to sunburn. However, NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Dr. Rachel Nazarian explains the difference.

"A sunburn is a general term meant to describe too much UV sun exposure, and damage to the skin by radiation; it can present as warm-to-the-touch skin, painful or tender patches, or even blisters," she says. "Second-degree burns are burns caused by many mechanisms (fire, other thermal or chemical sources, etc)."

She notes that you can get a second-degree sunburn specifically, which "outlines the depth and extent of injury by the sun." "First-degree effects the outermost layer, often with redness and discomfort, while second-degree effects the deeper level of skin, called the dermis. Second-degree sunburns are often painful, with swelling and blistering, and take several weeks to heal," she says.

While the two types of burns are different, treatment is similar, and involves immediately protecting skin from sun for several weeks, cool baths or cool compresses, oral and/or topical anti-inflammatory medications, as well as medications to prevent infection, says Nazarian. "In some instances, necessary wound care for blistered or broken skin — depending on the amount of skin effected and severity of the sunburn — will need inpatient care at a hospital," she adds. 

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