The 5 biggest myths about treating burns – and what to do instead

With some first-aid methods doing more harm than good, here’s what you need to know about the best way to treat burns.

At least 200,000 Australians suffer a burn every year, and as well as being painful, they often result in a hospital visit.

But before you hit the emergency department – or if your burn isn’t serious – you’ll need some first aid, and research suggests fewer than 10 per cent of us know what the best method is.

“People put all sorts of things on their burns, everything from toothpaste to butter and eggs in the belief it’ll speed up wound healing,” says Dr Jeremy Rawlins, president of the Australian and New Zealand Burn Association.

“There’s no sensible basis for doing this but patients often listen to ‘grandma’ or whoever’s giving the advice.”

Far from helping, some techniques can make a burn worse.

So, this National Burns Awareness Month, here’s what you need to know about a handful of burns first-aid myths.

MYTH #1: The colder the water, the better

No. While administering running water to a burn for 20 minutes is the best first-aid advice, it should be cool water – not freezing cold.

“Cool water is best at stopping the burning process, while ice-cold water damages the skin and makes the burn go deeper,” says Dr Rawlins.

MYTH #2: Ice is a good substitute for water

Definitely not, says Associate Professor Paul Bailey, medical director of St John Ambulance WA.

“Not only does the flowing nature of running water conduct heat away from a burn far better than a block of ice can, extreme cold in the form of ice can also damage the skin.”

Dr Rawlins agrees: “Ice is a big no-no because it causes the blood vessels in the skin to shut down, which deprives the skin of oxygen-rich blood and causes the burn to get worse – it can even cause a superficial burn to become a deep one.”

MYTH #3: If you can’t put a burn under running water immediately, there’s no point

Not true. “Doing this for 20 minutes as soon after the burn as possible is best, but it’s still useful for reducing the chances of the burn getting deeper, up to three hours following a burn injury,” says Dr Rawlins.

MYTH #4: If a burn isn’t painful it doesn’t need medical attention

Don’t be fooled.

“Third degree burns may be less painful than more minor burns because the sensory fibres in the skin have been destroyed by the burn,” says Associate Professor Bailey.

While first-degree burns are the least severe, third-degree burns are the most severe and may cause the skin to appear white or leathery.

If a burn is larger than a 20-cent piece or it is deep, always seek medical help.

MYTH #5: Covering a burn with a clean towel is a good idea

Covering a burn on the way to hospital is a good idea – but not with a towel.

“One of the greatest enemies to a burn wound is infection because that can cause the burn to deepen and – in large burns – can even cause death,” says Dr Rawlins.

“After you’ve placed a burn under cool running water for 20 minutes, cling-film is a good temporary dressing.

“Most people have this in the house and because it’s pure plastic, there’s very little for bacteria and viruses to cling to, making it one of the cleanest, safest and most comfortable temporary dressings for burns.”


Written by Karen Fittall.