6 Steps to Treat Kitchen Burns, Properly

You’ve got a stack of orders, expectant customers and a professional kitchen’s commotion. Add flames, steam, hot grease and boiling water, and burns happen.

Many cooks have the scars to prove it, even if they’re taking all the right steps to reduce injury in the kitchen.

But the extent of injury can be due as much to treatment mistakes as the burn itself.

“Always care for burns properly,” says Peter H. Grossman, MD, FACS, director of Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in West Hils, CA. “Otherwise, you may cheat yourself of the best outcome.”

Dr. Grossman and emergency room physician Hamad Husainy offer six steps to minimize damage:

1. Strip

“If oil or hot liquid splatters on your clothes, remove them because they retain heat, which only aggravates the injury,” says Dr. Grossman.

2. Cool the Burn

To curb inflammation, apply cold, wet compresses for up to 10 minutes. If you use ice or ice packs, place a thin cloth between them and the skin. Otherwise, you risk frost injuries.

This is not the time to play it cool in the kitchen. Take the time to actually apply the compress properly – no matter what the others on the line say. Your health is your number one priority.

Don’t run water over grease burns, which just spreads the oil. Instead wipe away grease with a dry cloth before washing and cooling the wound, Dr. Grossman says.

Despite claims otherwise, butter, mustard and toothpaste not only are ineffective but dangerous, he says. “Their coolness may make the burn feel better momentarily, but they also may cause infection.”

3. Assess the Damage

You need to know the degree of the burn to know how best to handle it.

First-degree burns are burns to the skin’s thin top layer, the epidermis, a barrier that keeps out germs, Dr. Grossman says.

Skin will redden and be hot. It also will hurt. But you will probably be able to take care of this by yourself, without a trip to the doctor.

Second-degree burns go deeper than the epidermis. They go down to the dermis, home to oil and sweat glands, blood vessels and nerve endings, Dr. Grossman says.

No matter your skin hue, your dermis is pink. You may have blisters and definitely will feel pain.

“If you’ve damaged just the top portion of the dermis, your body can heal well,” Dr. Grossman says. “Deeper injury may not heal as well.”

Third-degree burns go deepest. The flesh may be white, due to no blood flow, and you may feel no pain due to destroyed pain receptors. If so, you need a specialist, so seek prompt care at a burn center or emergency room.

“The deeper the burn, the more difficulty the body has repairing itself,” Dr. Grossman says. “Resulting scars tend to be thick and fibrous, which not only look worse but also can limit function.”

4. Location, Location, Location

The size and depth of a burn—as well as the body part harmed —should determine where you seek help, says Dr. Husainy, DO, chief medical officer of Sycamore Physicians in Florence, AL.

Body part: Burns to the face, hands, feet or lap are higher-risk and slower to heal than burns to the rest of the body.

Size: Generally, first-degree burns involving less than five percent of your body can be seen at urgent care. One percent of your body is equal to the size of your palm.

He recommends going to the emergency room if your burns are twice the size of your palm and are on your hands or feet. For vanity’s sake, if nothing else, see a burn specialist as soon as possible for any facial burns.

Depth: If tendons or bones are exposed, as can happen with cooking torches, “even if the wound is the size of a quarter, you need to go immediately at an emergency room,” Dr. Husainy says. “They’re deep enough that any infections could become long-term issues.”

Electrical burns also need a specialist’s care: “The entry may be small, but the burn itself may be deep,” he says.

Time: “The way your wound looks in the first few minutes is not what it may look like in an hour or the next day,” Dr. Grossman says. “Cell injury isn’t instantly visible. You want to ensure you don’t have lifelong scarring and potential disability.”

5. Go to the Right Doctor

“Your company may cover treatment with its associated healthcare provider,” Dr. Grossman says. “If you have any doubts about a doctor’s knowledge, follow up with a burn or wound specialist.”

In a community with no burn or wound center, consult a specialist via telehealth appointments.

6. After Care

Do not pop blisters. “The most important thing is to keep the burn clean,” Dr. Grossman says. “Inflammation and infection worsen scarring.”

Clean the wound with soap, then dry thoroughly but gently. Keep the area supple with prescription-strength antibiotic ointment Bacitracin for four days, then petroleum jelly (Vaseline). They have higher viscosity than most OTC ointments. Cover with a sterile, non-stick bandage. Change dressing twice daily—more if it gets wet.

Worse wounds may require dead skin removal or surgery to close them.

Minor burns should stop hurting within four days and will form a scab within a week, Dr. Grossman says. Skin should resurface fully within three weeks.

Once healed, scars should be covered with protective clothing or sunscreen to thwart darkening. A cosmetic dermatologist can improve scar appearance, Dr. Grossman says. “They never can be erased, but they can look much better.” 

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