Fire, over the ages, has served both as a source of comfort and as a source of danger to man. Thermal burns constitute one of the most severe injuries to man.

Over 2 million people in the United States annually receive burns. A government report estimated that between 1-2 percent of the population are burned yearly. This means most people will have the opportunity to give first aid to a burn victim.A mistake by first aiders is failure to calculate the burn size. Generally, children are undercalculated and adults are overestimated. Everyone, therefore, should be familiar with the "rule of nines," which divides the body surface area into multiple of nine. The trunk's front, back, each leg is 18 percent of the body surface. Each arm and the head is 9 percent. The palm of the victim's hand represents about 1 percent of his or her body surface area. Making a calculation of the burned surface area helps in deciding the type of care needed for the victim.

Always be sure the airway is open in the unconscious burn victim. After that, alleviate the pain and then prevent infection.

The use of cool - not cold - wet compresses or water alleviate the victim's pain. The only negative about the use of cool water or compresses is the risk of hypothermia.

Paramedics in several states use non-mentholated shaving cream to cover the burned area because it furnishes a protective cover that is easy to wash off.

Most burns are minor and don't require a lot of care. Burn severity involves a lot of factors - the extent of the burn, the depth, its location and the health of the victim. Burns are serious in the very young and the very old.

First degree burns involve the epidermis and heal in four to five days. As the skin heals, it peels off. Such burns generally heal without any cosmetic problems. Burns taking longer than three weeks to heal are usually in the deeper part of the dermis and almost always leave unsightly scars and functional problems. A burn through all layers of the skin cannot heal at all without assistance from burn care specialists.

A blister indicates a second degree burn. Some first degree burns inadequately cared for may become second degree burns in 12-24 hours.

A third degree burn is not painful (unless accompanied by surrounding first and/or second degree burns). Hairs come out easily. The burns can be any color, not the typically given one of charred coloration. They are dry and may appear leathery.

Any significant burn of the hands, face, feet or perineum should be treated in the hospital.

Victims of deep burns should receive a tetanus booster shot. For first degree burns, aloe vera is fine. Don't apply it until after the burn has been cooled. The most widely used topical antibiotic is probably silver sulfadiazine (Silva-dene Cream). It has a broad spectrum and kills most every bacteria, and it's usually soothing on a burn. Some people may be allergic to it, however.