Artists Resource for Fire

Dealing with burns

As the old adage goes, when you play with fire, sometimes you get burned. Especially when you work with fire as a medium. Burns are not only painful, but they can be life threatening and disfiguring. You will never fully regain the use of a body part that has been seriously burned.

You should always seek prompt medical attention and find out from trained medical personell what to do with your burn. We can offer some suggestions, but the best advice is to seek proper medical attention. The information below is taken directly from the NIH Web site regarding the subject of burns.

Burn Definition

Burns are classified in 3 different categories:

  1. First-degree burns affect the outer layer of the skin, causing pain, redness, and swelling.
  2. Second-degree burns affect both the outer and underlying layer of the skin, causing pain, redness, swelling, and blistering.
  3. Third-degree burns extend into deeper tissues, causing brown or blackened skin that may be numb.


Before giving first aid, consider how extensively burned the victim is and try to determine the depth of the most serious part of the burn. Then treat the entire burn accordingly. Knowing how the burn occurred is helpful, since different sources cause different types of burns. If in doubt, treat it as a severe burn.

Giving immediate first aid before professional medical help is received may lessen the severity of the burn. prompt medical attention to serious burns can help prevent scarring, disability, and deformity.

If the burn does not heal normally, get medical advice. For extensive but superficial burns, keep dressings clean and dry and change them as needed. If signs of infection develop get medical help immediately. Signs of infection include increased pain, redness, swelling, drainage from the burn, swollen lymph nodes, or red streaks spreading from the burn toward the heart. Make sure the victim is up-to-date on tetanus immunization.

Victims under age 4 or over age 60 have a higher incidence of complications and, consequently, a higher death rate.

Burns on the face, hands, feet, and genitalia are most serious, because of possible loss of function.

First Aid

The best advice I have heard from health care professionals is that cooling a 1st or 2nd degree burn with ice water is the best thing you can do. It will stop the heat from continuing to do damage to the affected area. The information below is directly from the NIH Web site.


  1. If the skin is unbroken, run cool water over the area of the burn or soak it in a cool water (not ice water) bath. Keep the area submerged for at least 5 minutes. However, if the burn occurred in a cold environment, do not apply water. A clean, cold, wet towel will also help reduce pain.
  2. Calm and reassure the victim. Burns can be extremely painful.
  3. After flushing or soaking for several minutes, cover the burn with a sterile bandage (if available) or clean cloth.
  4. Protect the burn from pressure and friction.
  5. Over-the-counter pain medications may be used to help relieve the pain; they may also help reduce inflammation and swelling.
  6. Minor burns will usually heal without further treatment. However, if a second-degree burn covers an area more than 2 to 3 inches in diameter, or if it occurred on the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks, or a major joint, then treat the burn as a major burn (see below).


  1. If someone is on fire, either douse him or her with water if it is available, wrap the victim in thick, non-synthetic material such as a wool or cotton coat, rug, or blanket to smother the flames, or lay the victim flat and roll him or her on the ground. If your clothes catch fire, STOP, DROP, and ROLL.
  2. Do not remove burnt clothing (unless it comes off easily), but do ensure that the victim is not still in contact with smoldering materials.
  3. Make sure the burn victim is breathing; if breathing has stopped or if the victim's airway is blocked then open the airway and if necessary, begin rescue breathing and CPR.
  4. If breathing is not a problem, cover the area of the burn with a cool, moist sterile bandage (if available) of clean cloth (do no use a blanket or towel; a sheet will do if the burned area is large). Do not apply any ointments. Avoid breaking burn blisters.
  5. If fingers or toes have been burned, separate them with dry, sterile, non-adhesive dressings.
  6. Elevate the burned area and protect it from pressure and friction.
  7. Take steps to prevent shock. Lay the victim flat, elevate the feet about 12 inches, and cover the victim with a coat or blanket. Do not place the victim in the shock position if a head, neck, back, or leg injury is suspected or if it makes the victim uncomfortable.
  8. Continue to monitor the victim's vital signs (pulse, rate of breathing, blood pressure) until medical help arrives.


In the U.S., about 2 million people suffer burns each year. Of these, 300,000 are burned seriously and over 6,000 are fatalities, making burns this nation's third largest cause of accidental death.

The NIH recommends the best way to prevent injuries from burns is to take the time to learn about proper safety precautions. This includes not only working with fire, but fireworks (pyrotechnics) as well.

If the burn is very serious (loss of skin, blistering, charring), seek prompt medical attention. The last thing in the world you want is for the burn to be mistreated. Burns can become easily infected.

After icing for 20 minutes, see how it looks. The best thing we have heard to treat a burn is silver sulfadiazine cream. In Canada, it is known by the brand name Flamazine. It is designed for burns and contains antibiotics to help with infection. The only drawback to sulfadiazine cream is that it requires a prescription. Complete information on silver sulfadiazine is available on the NIH Web site.

If you do not have Sulfadiazine cream, add a topical antibacterial such as Polysporin or Neosporin. This will help with infections.

Additional information

NIH Information on burns
NIH Information on silver sulfadiazine cream
NIH Information on over-the-counter pain medications

Written by Wally Glenn
Edited by Neil Carlberg, Maque Da Vis and Daniel Walsh.

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The information on this Web site is for informational pourposes only. Nothing should be attempted without first consulting your local Fire Marshal or the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) in your area. Some of the activities described may be illegal in your area and in no way should you attempt any activity without the expressed consent of the AHJ.