Learn more about different types of burns

Finding Treatment for Severe Burns: What You Need to Know

Severe burns interfere with your body’s natural healing ability — which makes treating third- and fourth-degree burns particularly difficult.

However, if burns are addressed by a medical professional immediately, there are short and long-term treatment options that may help prevent serious complications.

Learn more about the UPMC Mercy Burn Center

If you or someone near you sustain a serious burn, you should seek emergency care right away. Remember, pain level doesn’t always indicate the severity of a burn because third- and fourth-degree burns can cause numbness.

RELATED: Burns 101: When to Seek Medical Care and How You Can Treat Them at Home

What Is a Third-Degree Burn?

Third-degree burns are also known as full-thickness burns. They destroy both the outer layer of skin (called the epidermis) and the layer below it (the dermis). Less severe first- and second-degree burns only affect the epidermis.

Signs of a third-degree burn include:

  • Charred-looking, white, or dark brown skin
  • Skin that feels leathery and/or waxy
  • Raised and/or blistered skin
  • Lack of pain (often nerve endings have been destroyed)

What Is a Fourth-Degree Burn?

The difference between a third- and fourth-degree burn is the amount of tissue destroyed below the skin.

A third-degree burn may expose fatty tissue below the dermis. A fourth-degree burn, however, may expose muscle tissue and even bone.

What Should I Do If I Suffer a Serious Burn?

  • Call 911 immediately
  • Raise the injury above your heart to reduce inflammation
  • Don’t remove any clothing or materials stuck to the burn — it may open blisters.
  • For chemical burns, flush the burned area with large amounts of water to wash away the chemical
  • Loosely cover the burned area with a sterile, non-adhesive bandage, clean cloth, or a sheet
  • If you or someone near you has sustained a burn and appear to be in shock (rapid breathing, low blood pressure, blueish and/or clammy skin), elevate the feet to improve blood flow to the heart. Cover the person gently with a coat or blanket to help return their body temperature to normal
  • DO NOT apply ice or cream, jelly, ointment, or other topicals to the burn
  • DO NOT peel away burned skin

Finding Expert Burn Treatment

Hospitals with burn units are specially equipped and staffed by trained professionals to care for burn victims.

Established in 1967, the UPMC Mercy Burn Center is one of only 68 American Burn Association-verified burn centers in the United States and a nationally recognized leader in providing outstanding, quality care to individuals with severe burn injuries.

The approach a doctor takes in treating your burn depends on a variety of factors, including your size and overall health, the size of the burn, its cause, and its location. Treatment includes:

  • Cleaning the burn site and removing dead skin and tissue from the area
  • Providing intravenous fluids containing electrolytes to help the body heal and regulate temperature and organ function
  • Antibiotic fluids or ointments if infection develops
  • Pain medication
  • Tetanus shot to prevent infection
  • Skin grafts, a surgical procedure during which healthy skin is taken from another area of the body to cover and eventually close the wound site, as skin may not regenerate on its own in severely burned areas
  • Cosmetic reconstruction

The Long-Term Effects of Severe Burns

A severe burn can affect your life for years to come.

Some burn victims lose the ability to sweat in burned areas of their body, which means the body can’t cool itself and they must be restricted from many forms of physical activity. Other complications include scarring, infections, emotional trauma, and damage to joints or other body parts.

You can prevent burns for yourself and your family by adopting safety practices around the house, including:

  • Never leave a stove or oven unattended while in use
  • Keep a close eye on children around open flames and a hot stove
  • Store harsh chemicals securely and out of the way
  • Keep children and pets away from hot irons or other appliances