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HealthInfo Waitaha Canterbury

Overview of burns

All burns need first aid. Most need cooling for 20 minutes with cold water.

How serious a burn is depends on what caused the burn, where the burn is, how large it is, how deep it is, and your age and health when you get burned. Different parts of a burn may be at different depths. It can be hard to tell how bad a burn is and some will get worse in the first days.

If the burn goes the whole way around part of your body, such as an arm, leg or neck, this is more serious. So is a burn that is bigger than the size of your palm.

Burns are usually very painful. However, deep burns may not cause much pain because of damage to nerves in the skin.

Types of burns

Most burns are caused by heat, such as a scald from a hot object or liquid, or a flame. These are called thermal burns.

Chemicals such as strong acids or alkalines can also cause burns. Electricity can burn if it passes through the body. Radiation can also burn – for example, ultra-violet (UV) radiation from the sun causes sunburn.

Chemical burns often need extra care. Electrical burns can go below the skin, causing internal damage.

Burns to the face, hands, feet, genitals, joints or eyes need special care.

Grades of burns

There are four grades of burns.

Redness (erythema or epidermal burn) affects the top layer of skin. The skin is dry and red, but without blisters, and will hurt when you touch it. Healing takes around seven days. It usually heals without scarring.

First degree burn (superficial partial thickness or superficial dermal burn) affects the top layer of skin. The skin often has blisters. It will look pink and moist, and be painful. Healing may take 10 days to three weeks. Burns that take longer to heal may leave scars.

Second degree burn (mid-deep partial thickness or mid-deep dermal burn) affects the deeper layers of skin. It will usually have large blisters and be blotchy red or white, but not be as painful. Healing is very slow.

Third degree burn (full thickness burn) affects all three layers of skin. The burn wound will be very white, brown, or black, and can look and feel like leather. This type of burn generally needs a skin graft. There will be scarring.

Scarring is the most common complication of a burn. Sometimes a burn scar can pull the skin together too tightly, restricting movement. This is known as contracture, and may require surgery.

Burns can also cause other serious problems, such as fluid and heat loss. This is because when the skin is damaged it leaks fluid, and lets out heat. With very severe burns this can be life-threatening.

Burn wounds can also get infected. This can cause significant illness, delay their healing and make it more likely they will scar.

Treating burns

Most minor burns can be managed at home, but if you have any concerns see a nurse or doctor. For more serious burns, you'll need treatment from your GP. The most severe burns will need to be seen at hospital.

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On the next page: Burns first aid

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Plastic Surgery Department, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed May 2021.


Page reference: 101209

Review key: HIBUR-30143