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Burns

Burns

A burn is damage to the skin and sometimes to the underlying tissues. Burns are categorized according to the depth and extent of the damage to the skin.

Types of Burns

Superficial Burn

Also called first-degree burn, this is the mildest type of burn that affects only the outer layer of the skin. Ultraviolet light or very short flame exposure often causes this type of burn. It doesn't normally cause scarring, and it takes about 3-6 days to heal.

Symptoms include:

  • Burned area turns red and is painful
  • The area blanches (turns white) when you press on it
  • The area may swell, but it is dry and there is no blistering

Superficial Partial-thickness Burn

Also called second-degree burn, this burn affects the outer layer of the skin more deeply and usually causes blistering. A spill or splash or short flame exposure usually causes this type of burn. It may not cause scarring, but it often does cause long-term skin color changes. Second-degree burns take about 1-3 weeks to heal.

Symptoms include:

  • Blisters
  • The area is moist, red and weeping
  • The area blanches (turns white) when you press on it
  • Painful to air and temperature

Deep Partial-thickness Burn

Another type of second-degree burn, this burn usually causes scarring and takes more than three weeks to heal. Scalding spills, flames, oil or grease often cause this type of burn.

Symptoms include:

  • Blisters, usually loose and easily unroofed
  • The area can be wet or waxy dry
  • The skin color can vary from patchy, to cheesy white, to red
  • The area does not blanch (turn white) with pressure

Full-thickness Burn

This third-degree burn is very serious and damages all layers of the skin, and may involve the tissues underneath (muscle and bone). Flames, steam, oil, grease, chemicals or high-voltage electricity often cause this type of burn. Third-degree burns will only heal at the wound edges by scarring, unless skin grafting is done.

Symptoms include:

  • Skin can appear waxy white, leathery gray or charred and blackened
  • May not be painful if nerves have been damaged, the only sensation may be deep pressure

 

Nucleus factsheet image

Classification of Skin Burns

Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Causes

Burns can be caused by:

  • Heat or flame (thermal burns):
    • Hot foods or drinks such as boiling water, tea or coffee
    • Hot oil or grease
    • Direct heat such as stoves, heaters or curling irons
    • Direct flame
    • Flammable liquids such as gasoline
    • Fireworks
  • Chemicals (chemical burn) — strong acids or strong bases such as:
    • Cleaning products
    • Battery fluid
    • Pool chemicals
    • Drain cleaners
  • Sunlight (sunburn) or tanning beds
  • Electricity (electrical burn):
    • Damaged electrical cords
    • Electrical outlets
    • High-voltage wires
    • Lightning
  • Radiation (radiation burn):
    • Nuclear radiation
    • X-rays
    • Radiation therapy for cancer treatment

Burn Treatment

Treatment depends on the cause of the burn, how deep the burn is and how much of the body the burn covers. Doctors have methods and charts to estimate the total percentage of body surface area (TBSA) affected by the injury. This estimate is age dependent. For example, the head represents a larger percentage of surface area in a baby than in an adult.

Minor Burns

First aid for minor burns may involve:

  • Cooling the burn with running water or a cold damp cloth. Do not use ice — this may result in more damage to the skin.
  • Do not use butter, grease, oils or ointments on the burn.
  • Cover the burn with sterile gauze or a clean cloth.
  • Do not use a fluffy cloth such as a towel or blanket.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, like acetaminophen (Tylenol).
  • Do not break or pop any blisters. This may result in an infection.
  • If you see signs of an infection, get medical attention. Signs of infection include:
    • Increased pain
    • Redness
    • Fever
    • Swelling
    • Oozing of pus

Deep Partial-thickness or Full-thickness Burns

For more serious burns, like deep partial-thickness or full-thickness burns, seek medical attention or call 911. Until an emergency unit arrives:

  • Do not take off any clothing that is stuck to the burn.
  • Make sure the victim is not near, or in contact with, any smoldering materials or exposed to further smoke or heat.
  • Do not soak the burn in water. You can cover the area with a cool, moist sterile bandage or clean cloth.
  • As with any severe injury, make sure the person is breathing and administer CPR if necessary.

Hospitalization for Burn

Your doctor will decide if you need to be hospitalized. Reasons may include:

  • Age: younger than five years or older than 55 years
  • Suspected child abuse
  • Very small, deep burns on the hands, face, eyes, feet or groin/genital area
  • Extensive burn: using TBSA and age charts
  • Burns that may require complicated dressing changes, elevation or continued physician observation
  • High-voltage injury or burn
  • Suspected or known inhalation injury
  • Other medical problems that predispose a person to infection, such as:
    • Diabetes
    • Immunosuppression
    • Sickle cell disease

You may receive the following treatments in a hospital:

  • Oxygen to help with breathing
  • Intubation
  • IV fluids to replace those lost from the burn
  • Skin graft
  • Splints — placed on joints to help maintain mobility
  • Physical therapy, in the case of large burns

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Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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