The Basics of Burns: What Are They and How Do You Treat Them?

Updated on March 28, 2022

According to the World Health Organization, over 200,000 people die from burns. While most people think of thermal or flame burns as the only type of burn, there are, in fact, several types.

This article will discuss the different types of burns, how to identify them, and how to treat them.

What Is a Burn, and What Causes Them?

Burns are one of the most common injuries around. They can be serious and require urgent care, but they usually heal within a week or two with medical treatment unless they’re third-degree burns (which require skin grafting). You can get a burn from heat, electricity, chemicals, and radiation (from the sun and other sources).

Different materials conduct heat in different ways. Some feel hotter to the touch than others, but a material that feels cooler may actually conduct heat better and cause a more serious burn. A burn from any source can be fatal if it covers large parts of your body or is in an awkward place (such as near your mouth when you’re lying down).

The most common burns happen when someone is exposed to heat (for example, if their clothing catches fire or they fall into a fire). Electrical burns can happen when electricity enters the body and causes an intense muscle contraction. Chemical burns come from chemicals in things like paint thinner and bleach-even some household products. And radiation can cause radiation burns, which are actually dry charred skin (similar to a burn that’s caused by fire).

What Are the Different Kinds of Burns?

First-degree burns are the least serious. They don’t go all the way through your skin. A sunburn is an example of first-degree burn (in this case, from heat and ultraviolet radiation-not electricity or chemicals). Your skin is red and painful, but it usually heals in a few days.

Second-degree burns go through your skin to the fat layer under it (or even to your muscle or bone). They’re often called partial-thickness burns, and they cause more severe pain.

Blisters also develop in about half of all cases. The top layers of skin often peel away, leaving an open wound that takes much longer to heal (two or three weeks) than a first-degree burn (a few days).

Third-degree burns destroy all the layers of your skin. They may also go down to the fat layer. They’re often dry and leathery to the touch, numb, grayish white instead of red, and appear waxy.

It may take several months for third-degree burns to heal even with treatment. Your fingers or toes may look shriveled up or charred black (this is called necrosis).

Most serious burns are at least partial-thickness burns. It’s hard to predict how much of your skin will be burned, but second-degree or worse burns are always serious (especially if they cover the hands, feet, face, or joints). Burns can also cause shock (dangerously low blood pressure), infection, pneumonia, and possibly even death.

What to Do When You Get Burned

If someone’s on fire, don’t hesitate: smother (or wrap) the flames with a large blanket and call 911. If you’re burned, there are several things to try immediately.

Get away from the heat source. Remove any clothing or jewelry that’s near the burn. It will only make the situation worse by trapping heat against your skin. If you can’t remove the clothing, cover burned skin with a cool, wet cloth to decrease burning.

If you have a burn, you should go to urgent care if it is larger than the size of your palm or blistering.

Don’t immerse large or deep burns in cold water. This can cause your blood pressure to plummet and may increase damage to your tissues (and it doesn’t do much for pain either). Instead, wrap them in a towel and bring yourself to the emergency room.

Don’t use butter or other home remedies like toothpaste (they don’t help, and they can make things worse). Also avoid ointments, oils, fluffy cotton dressings, and other commercial burn remedies like Jell-O. They can make it harder to see how serious the burn is and slow healing.

If your burned skin starts to peel, don’t pick at it. This increases scarring and infection risks. Instead, gently clean the area with soap and water (which will also help reduce itching).

Burns can be painful, and depending on the severity, they can cause severe scarring and damage to the tissues that may be permanent. For this reason, do not take them lightly. Bring yourself to the doctor to make sure to get the proper treatment and care.


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