Follow these steps to help heal a burn and avoid making it worse:
- Cooling is the first step. Ideally, you can find a cooled saline-soaked gauze but cooled or room temperature water is more practical; this is your starting point. A common mistake people make is putting ice on the burn, don’t do this.
- Gentle cleansing with mild soap and water are fine here. You could also use saline wound wash if you have it.
- Next step: do I need a topical antibiotic or not? You don’t always need to put Neosporin or Polysporin on your burn. Using a topical antibiotic is recommended, but not for minor burns (e.g. sunburns) and superficial burns with the skin intact. Those do not require a topical antimicrobial agent. For these burns, instead, you will want to cover them with bismuth-impregnated petroleum based gauze (Xeroform) which you can buy over the counter.
- If you do need a topical antibiotic (if it’s more than just a sunburn or a superficial burn with the skin intact) silver sulfadiazine (Silvadene) is great, but requires a prescription. It is cheap and comes in a jar so keep this in your medicine chest for later. A good over the counter option for an uncomplicated burn is to use Polysporin ointment, then cover with a nonadherent (non-stick) dressing like Telfa pads.
- What about deeper burns? For deeper wounds or settings in which MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staph aureus) is of greater concern, think about using Bactroban (mupirocin) ointment—which is also a prescription med.
- What sort of bandages and dressings should I buy? Superficial burns don’t require any fancy dressing. A basic gauze will work. But again, a bismuth-impregnated petroleum based gauze (Xeroform) is comparable to the topical antibiotics for preventing or controlling burn wound infection. Xeroform is applied as a single layer over the burn and then covered with a bulky dressing.
- How to do a basic dressing for burns (this goes for cuts too): A basic gauze dressing provides good burn coverage. It is placed after your topical antibiotic and consists of the first layer of nonadherent (non-stick) gauze like Adaptic or Telfa placed over the burn. Then you’ll want a second layer of fluffed dry gauze, and an outer layer of an elastic gauze roll (e.g. Kerlix).
- Use Tylenol or an NSAID (ibuprofen, Motrin, Aleve) for the pain.
Your shopping list to be ready for burns or cuts:
- Sterile saline wound wash
- Telfa pads
- Dry gauze pads
- Kerlix (elastic gauze roll)
- From your doctor: Silvadene cream and Bactroban ointment.
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