How do you know if it’s bad?
You’re cooking dinner, and the water you’ve got on the stove starts to boil over, so you reach out to turn it down. In doing so, some of the water splashes on your arm. Immediately, you notice that it hurts. Quickly, you run some cool water over the area. It feels a little better but is still red. You’ve been burned, but how bad is it? Do you need to go to the doctor? What should you do to treat it?
Burns happen when tissues are damaged due to contact with chemicals/flames/electricity, scalding, overexposure to the sun/radiation, or smoke inhalation. It’s one of the most common household injuries in children. The damage is characterized into four different types, or degrees. The degree doesn’t depend on the cause.
- First-degree burns are also called superficial burns because they’re the most minor (only affecting the outer layer of skin). They cause red, non-blistered skin, pain in the area, and minimal inflammation/swelling. As the skin is healing, the dead skin peels off. The healing time is between 7 – 10 days.
- Second-degree burns are more severe because the damage goes beyond the top layer of the skin. The skin will appear extremely red, have blisters, and be sore. Over time, thick, soft, scab-like tissue will cover the area. On average, these burns take 2 – 3 weeks to heal. While they usually don’t scar, they often result in pigment changes to the skin.
- Third-degree burns extend through every layer of the skin and impact the nerves. This means these burns aren’t usually painful. Depending on the cause, the burns will look waxy/white, charred, dark brown, or raised/leathery. These burns will require medical treatment in order to heal. Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific timeline for the healing process.
- Fourth-degree burns will appear similar to third-degree but go so deep, they involve tendons and bone. They, too, won’t usually be painful due to nerve damage.
While all burns pose the risk of infection, third- and fourth-degree have the highest risk. They also have an increased risk of blood loss, shock, and hypothermia (resulting in your body losing too much body heat from the injury). You should see a doctor if a burn affects a widespread area (more than 3 inches in diameter), burn includes the face, hands, buttocks, or groin area, the wound becomes painful or smelly, develop a high temperature, think you have a third-degree burn, or if your last tetanus shot was more than five years ago. A special note about electrical burns is that the damage can affect more than the skin you see, which is why they should always be examined by a doctor, even if they don’t look serious.
The treatment of a burn depends on the severity. For minor burns, the first step is to cool the burned area by running cool (not cold) water over it. You can also apply a cool, wet compress. Do either of these until the pain eases. It’s important to note that cold water or ice can actually cause further skin damage. Remove rings or other tight items from the area at or below the burn in case the area swells. Apply aloe vera or moisturizer to the site once it’s completely cooled. Aloe has anti-inflammatory properties, promotes circulation, and inhibits the growth of bacteria. Another option is to use honey because it’s also an anti-inflammatory and has natural antibacterial and antifungal properties. If blisters form, don’t pop them. If they open on their own, clean the area with mild soap and water and apply antibiotic ointment. You can take over-the-counter pain relievers, like ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen, if needed. For sunburns, avoid exposing the area to direct sunlight because it will be sensitive and more likely to be further damaged.
Severe burns should be treated by removing the person from further harm (if you can safely do so). Once the person is safe, make sure they’re breathing. If not, begin rescue breathing (if you know how). Remove all restrictive items (ex. jewelry and belts) because the area will swell rapidly. Cover the burned area with a cool, moist bandage (don’t submerge the area in water) and elevate the area above the heart. Monitor the person for signs of shock, such as fainting, pale complexion, and shallow breathing. Severe burns usually require surgery to help the area heal without severe scarring and contractures.
There are several things that you can do to prevent burns from happening. While cooking in the kitchen, keep children out, make sure pot handles are turned toward the back of the stove, and have a fire extinguisher in or near the kitchen. Keep your water heater temperatures under 120°F (most have a max temperature of 140°F). Always measure the water temperature before you or your children shower or take a bath. Places covers over electrical outlets, regularly check electrical cords for exposed wires (dispose of any damaged ones), keep electrical cords out of reach of children, and unplug any appliances that you’re not using. Be sure to clean out dryer lint traps regularly. Keep matches, lighters, and chemicals out of reach of children. When using any chemicals yourself, wear gloves. Test smoke detectors once a month and replace them every ten years. Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF of 30 or higher) every day and avoid peak sunlight. Develop a fire escape plan and practice it with your family once a month. If there is a fire, crawl underneath smoke to reduce the chances of passing out and becoming trapped.
Burns can range from annoying and painful to life-threatening. By knowing what to do if you get burned, you’ll be back to feeling yourself in no time. If you have any questions or concerns about burns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit Cleveland Clinic’s Burns page at https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12063-burns