Burns are painful injuries that can be caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, radiation, or sunlight. While treating burns, one of the most common remedies is to immediately apply cold water to the affected area. But, have you ever wondered why cold water helps burns? Let’s dive deeper into the science behind this phenomenon.
How Does a Burn Occur?
Before we discuss why cold water helps burns, let’s take a quick look at how burns occur. Burns happen when our skin tissues undergo thermal damage due to exposure to sources of heat, such as fire, hot objects, or boiling liquids. They can also occur due to friction, chemicals, electricity, or radiation.
The Different Types of Burns
There are three types of burns:
- First-degree burns: These are minor burns that only affect the outermost layer of our skin. They are characterized by redness, pain, and a mild swelling.
- Second-degree burns: These burns can affect both the outer and the underlying layers of our skin. They are characterized by redness, swelling, blistering, and a moderate to severe pain.
- Third-degree burns: These are severe burns that can extend beyond the skin tissues and affect the underlying muscles, bones, and nerves. They are characterized by charring, waxy and white appearance, and little to no pain due to nerve damage.
Why Does Cold Water Help Burns?
Now that we have a basic understanding of how burns occur, let’s answer the main question: why does cold water help burns?
First and foremost, cold water helps reduce the temperature of the affected area. This is important because burns result in the release of excess heat that can further damage the skin tissues, and cause cell death or necrosis. Applying cold water dilutes the heat and curtails this cycle of damage.
Cold water also helps reduce inflammation and swelling by constricting the blood vessels. This helps prevent the area from filling up with fluids, which can cause blisters or other types of injury. Additionally, it helps reduce pain and soothe the skin by numbing the affected area and reducing the activity of nerve endings.
Lastly, cold water also helps reduce the risk of infection by washing away any contaminants that might be present on the skin surface or the wound. This is why doctors recommend flushing chemical burns with cold water for at least 20 minutes.
How to Apply Cold Water for Burns?
The recommended way to apply cold water for burns is to rinse the affected area under a gentle stream of cool running water for at least 10-15 minutes. Avoid using ice or very cold water as this can further damage the skin or prolong the pain. Additionally, avoid applying ointments or creams as these can trap heat or bacteria and cause infection. For severe burns or burns that cover more than 10% of the body, seek immediate medical attention.
Tips for Preventing Burns
While cold water treatment is an effective remedy for burns, prevention is always better than cure. Here are a few tips for preventing burns:
- Use oven mitts or potholders while cooking or baking to avoid burns from hot pots or pans.
- Keep hot liquids away from the edge of tables or countertops to prevent accidental spills.
- Use sunscreen and protective clothing to prevent sunburns or radiation burns.
- Keep chemicals out of reach of children and wear protective gear while handling chemicals or working with fire.
The Bottom Line
Burns are painful injuries that can cause serious damage if not treated properly. Applying cold water is an effective way to reduce the temperature, inflammation, and risk of infection. Remember to rinse burns under cool running water for at least 10-15 minutes, and seek medical attention for severe burns. Prevention is always better than cure, so take necessary precautions to avoid burns in the first place.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q) Is it okay to use ice or very cold water for burns?
Ice or very cold water should not be used for burns as they can further damage the skin or prolong the pain. Use cool running water instead.
Q) Can I apply ointments or creams on a burn?
Avoid applying ointments or creams on a burn as they can trap heat or bacteria and cause infection.
Q) What should I do if the burn is severe or covers more than 10% of my body?
Seek immediate medical attention for severe burns or burns that cover more than 10% of your body.
Q) How can I prevent burns?
To prevent burns, use oven mitts or potholders while cooking or baking, keep hot liquids away from the edge of tables or countertops, use sunscreen and protective clothing, keep chemicals out of reach of children, and wear protective gear while handling chemicals or working with fire.
1. American Red Cross. (2021). Burns. Retrieved from https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/burns.html
2. American Society of Plastic Surgeons. (2021). Burns. Retrieved from https://www.plasticsurgery.org/reconstructive-procedures/burns
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Preventing Thermal Burns. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/burns.html