The risk of sustaining a burn is all around you — at home, in the workplace, and out in public.
That’s why it’s critical to understand the different types of burns, and when it’s time to seek medical attention.
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Learn About Different Types of Burns
Thermal burns occur when you come in contact with something hot. Typically, you will suffer a thermal burn when you touch:
- Flames or fire
- Hot, molten liquid or steam (referred to as a scald)
- Hot objects, such as cooking pans, irons, or heated appliances.
Treatment for thermal burns depends on the location and severity of the burn. For moderate to severe burns, you should immediately call 911. Then take these steps:
- Put out any fire or flames and stop contact with the hot or heated source.
- Use cold water to cool the burned area. Do not use ice, as it may further damage the skin.
- For mild burns, you can find pain relief by applying a cool, wet compress and/or taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen as directed on the bottle. Later, burn creams and ointments can help these burns heal.
- For more severe burns, loosely apply a sterile bandage or clean cloth to the burned area. Do not remove parts of your skin or pop blisters. Seek medical attention for further treatment.
You may receive a chemical burn if your skin and/or eyes come in contact with a harsh irritant, such as acid. Substances that cause chemical burns include:
- Battery acid
- Strong or harsh cleaners
Take these steps if you have been burned by a chemical: Rinse the burned area under running water for at least 10 minutes. If the chemical has entered your eye, rinse your eye for about 20 minutes to remove traces of the chemical. Then, call 911 or go to the hospital if the burn is:
- Larger than three inches
- On your face, hands, feet, groin, or buttocks
- Still very painful after taking over-the-counter pain medication
- On a major joint, like the knee
Medical treatment for both thermal burns and chemical burns is similar and may include:
- Wound cleaning and removing dead skin or tissue
- IV fluids to regulate body temperature and speed healing
- Antibiotics to prevent or fight infection
- Skin grafting (covering the wound with healthy skin from another area of the body to close the wound)
Electrical burns happen when the body comes in contact with an electric current. Our internal systems are not resistant to electricity, so you may be injured if a strong jolt enters your body.
The most common cause of electrical burn is coming in contact with an extension cord where the insulation material has worn away. Low-voltage electrical burns can also occur in the mouth, most commonly when young children place noninsulated cords in their mouth.
A burn may appear on your skin if an electric current runs through your body. These burns can be treated like a thermal or chemical burn. However, if you come in contact with an electric current, you should seek emergency medical attention immediately. Electricity can affect internal tissues and muscles and have long-term, negative effects on your health.
A friction burn can occur when skin repeatedly rubs against another surface or is scraped against a hard surface. Like other burns, friction burns are categorized into degrees.
Many friction burns are first degree and often heal on their own within three to six days. You can use moisturizing cream at home to care for it. For more serious friction burns, you should seek medical care immediately.
Cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy may suffer from an injury known as radiation burn.
High-energy radiation is used to shrink or kill cancerous cells, and when it passes through the body, skin cells may be damaged. If you’re frequently receiving radiation treatments, your skin cells may not have enough time to regenerate, and sores or ulcers may develop.
The term “burn” is a misnomer for these wounds, because skin has not actually been burned. However, the wounds can look and feel like burns.
Skin must regenerate for the wounds to heal, which can take two to four weeks for mild skin reactions or a few months for more serious reactions.
Care for radiation burns includes:
- Cleaning and moisturizing wounds
- Avoiding sunlight
- Wearing loose clothing or bandages over the wound
If you have an injury from radiation, you may also have internal complications and should seek medical treatment immediately.
Now that you are able to identify the different types of burns, you should know how burns vary. Burns are classified by degree: first, second, and third.
First-degree burns damage the outer layer of your skin, better known as the epidermis. Typically, these burns heal themselves within a week. A good example of a first-degree burn would be sunburn. So, don’t forget your tanning lotion.
Second-degree burns damage both the outer layer and the layer beneath it, which is called the dermis. With these burns, a skin graft is sometimes needed. A skin graft is essentially a procedure in which healthy skin is transplanted to cover the burn, allowing it to heal.
Third-degree burns are more severe, as they destroy both layers of your skin. Hair follicles, sweat glands, and other tissues tend to result in damage as well. Remember those skin-grafts we talked about? They are always required with third-degree burns.
If you have experienced second or third-degree burns, it is best to seek medical treatment right away.
Emergencies can happen in the blink of an eye or in a heartbeat. And when they do, minutes matter. UPMC’s Emergency Medicine and Trauma Care services are ready to provide world-class care, no matter how serious your emergency. All our Emergency Departments have a full-time staff of emergency specialists at the ready 24 hours a day. We use advanced technology to diagnose and treat your condition and coordinate with your doctor to provide the best care possible. We also have specialized trauma care at several of our hospitals. If you or a loved one is experiencing a medical emergency, call 911 or visit the nearest Emergency Department.