How Serious Is Your Burn?

September 01, 2013
by Michael Barber
How Serious Is Your Burn?

A burn injury can happen at anytime. Burns range from first to fourth degree depending on the severity and can lead to infection if they aren't properly treated. Everyone should know how to gauge the seriousness of burns, when to seek medical care, and how to treat mild burns.

Burn Statistics

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, one to two million Americans "seek medical attention for burns each year" and "between 50,000 and 70,000 people are hospitalized for burns." In addition, 30 to 40 percent of persons treated for burns are under the age of 15 years of age. How can you tell if a burn is serious enough to seek medical treatment or if you can treat the burn at home?

First Degree Burns

These burns affect only the outer layer of the skin and symptoms are redness, swelling, and pain. Mild sunburn is considered to be a first degree burn. These burns last between 48 and 72 hours and other symptoms are peeling or dry skin.

To treat first degree burns, apply cool (no ice) compresses and use lotion or ointments recommended for burns. Aloe Vera gel will help with pain. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can also be taken to alleviate pain.

Second Degree Burns

These burns affect both the outer layer of the skin and the second layer of the skin, also known as the dermis. Symptoms include all the signs of a first degree burn and often blisters will appear. Skin will become very red or splotchy and pain and swelling is usually noticeable.

The Mayo Clinic recommends first gauging the size of the burn. If it is under three inches in diameter, the burn can be treated at home using OTC pain meds and cold compresses. However, the Mayo Clinic warns, if the "burned area is larger (than three inches) or is on the hands, feet, face, groin or buttocks, or over a major joint," immediate medical care should be sought.

To treat second degree burns, run cool water on the wound or apply cool compresses—never use ice. This will help reduce the swelling. Use a gauze bandage and cover the burn. Gauze is better than cotton that may enter the wound. Keep the gauze bandage loose, just enough to keep air away. Give the patient OTC pain relievers for pain.

Second degree burns under three-inches in diameter usually heal in a week to 10 days with possible pigment changes to skin. It's also recommended to use sunscreen on the area once healed for at least a year after the burn.

It's important to note if intense pain isn't relieved with OTC medications, additional swelling or fever, redness or oozing occurs, you should seek immediate urgent care.

Third and Fourth Degree Burns

Third and fourth degree burns require emergency care. These burns involve the outer layer of the skin, the dermis, bones, muscles, and tendons. They can appear charred or leathery.

With third degree burns, pain may not be present if the nerve endings are destroyed. With fourth degree burns, the wound will appear stiff and extend into the subcutaneous fat, muscle and bone.

It is not recommended to treat third or fourth degree burns at home and immediate medical treatment should be sought. Consider these burns life threatening.

The World Health Organization offers a great download on how to treat minor burns and includes diagrams to help assess severity of burns.

A burns could be serious and if you're unsure of the severity, it's best to seek the care of a professional.