What are burns?
Burns are one of the most common household injuries, especially among children. The term “burn” means more than the burning sensation associated with this injury. Burns are characterized by severe skin damage that causes the affected skin cells to die.
Most people can recover from burns without serious health consequences, depending on the cause and degree of injury. More serious burns require immediate emergency medical care to prevent complications and death.
There are three primary types of burns: first-, second-, and third-degree. Each degree is based on the severity of damage to the skin, with first-degree being the most minor and third-degree being the most severe. Damage includes:
- first-degree burns: red, nonblistered skin
- second-degree burns: blisters and some thickening of the skin
- third-degree burns: widespread thickness with a white, leathery appearance
There are also fourth-degree burns. This type of burn includes all of the symptoms of a third-degree burn and also extends beyond the skin into tendons and bones.
Burns have a variety of causes, including:
- scalding from hot, boiling liquids
- chemical burns
- electrical burns
- fires, including flames from matches, candles, and lighters
- excessive sun exposure
The type of burn is not based on the cause of it. Scalding, for example, can cause all three burns, depending on how hot the liquid is and how long it stays in contact with the skin.
Chemical and electrical burns warrant immediate medical attention because they can affect the inside of the body, even if skin damage is minor.
Compared with first- and second-degree burns, third-degree burns carry the most risk for complications, such as infections, blood loss, and shock, which is often what could lead to death. At the same time, all burns carry the risk of infections because bacteria can enter broken skin.
Tetanus is another possible complication with burns of all levels. Like sepsis, tetanus is a bacterial infection. It affects the nervous system, eventually leading to problems with muscle contractions. As a rule of thumb, every member of your household should receive updated tetanus shots every 10 years to prevent this type of infection.
Severe burns also carry the risk of hypothermia and hypovolemia. Dangerously low body temperatures characterize hypothermia. While this may seem like an unexpected complication of a burn, the condition is actually prompted by excessive loss of body heat from an injury. Hypovolemia, or low blood volume, occurs when your body loses too much blood from a burn.
Preventing all degrees of burns
The obvious best way to fight burns is to prevent them from happening. Certain jobs put you at a greater risk for burns, but the fact is that most burns happen at home. Infants and young children are the most vulnerable to burns. Preventive measures you can take at home include:
- Keep children out of the kitchen while cooking.
- Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove.
- Place a fire extinguisher in or near the kitchen.
- Test smoke detectors once a month.
- Replace smoke detectors every 10 years.
- Keep water heater temperature under 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Measure bath water temperature before use.
- Lock up matches and lighters.
- Install electrical outlet covers.
- Check and discard electrical cords with exposed wires.
- Keep chemicals out of reach, and wear gloves during chemical use.
- Wear sunscreen every day, and avoid peak sunlight.
- Ensure all smoking products are stubbed out completely.
- Clean out dryer lint traps regularly.
The best home remedies for burns
Mild burns typically take around a week or two to completely heal and usually don’t cause scarring. The goal of burn treatment is to reduce pain, prevent infections, and heal the skin faster.
- Cool water
The first thing you should do when you get a minor burn is run cool (not cold) water over the burn area for about 20 minutes. Then wash the burned area with mild soap and water.
- Cool compresses
A cool compress or clean wet cloth placed over the burn area helps relieve pain and swelling. You can apply the compress in 5- to 15-minute intervals. Try not to use excessively cold compresses because they may irritate the burn more.
- Antibiotic ointments
Antibiotic ointments and creams help prevent infections. Apply an antibacterial ointment like Bacitracin or Neosporin to your burn and cover with cling film or a sterile, non-fluffy dressing or cloth. Shop for Bacitracin and Neosporin online.
- Aloe vera
Aloe vera is often touted as the “burn plant.” Studies show evidence that aloe vera is effective in healing first- to second-degree burns. Aloe is anti-inflammatory, promotes circulation, and inhibits the growth of bacteria. Apply a layer of pure aloe vera gel taken from the leaf of an aloe vera plant directly to the affected area. If you buy aloe vera in a store, make sure it contains a high percentage of aloe vera. Avoid products that have additives, especially coloring and perfumes.
Honey just got sweeter. Apart from its delicious taste, honey may help heal a minor burn when applied topically. Honey is an anti-inflammatory and naturally antibacterial and antifungal.
- Reducing sun exposure
Do your best to avoid exposing the burn to direct sunlight. The burned skin will be very sensitive to the sun. Keep it covered with clothing.
- Don’t pop your blisters
As tempting as it may be, leave your blisters alone. Bursting a blister yourself can lead to infection. If you’re worried about blisters that have formed due to your burn, see a medical professional.
- Take an OTC pain reliever
If you have pain, take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve). Be sure to read the label for the correct dosage.
Treatment of burn scars
Treatment will depend on the degree and size of the burn. Don’t try any home treatment without first talking to your doctor.
For second-degree burns:
- Apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment to your burn to help it heal.
- Cover your burn with sterile, nonstick gauze to protect the area, prevent infection, and help the skin recover.
For third-degree burns:
- Wear tight, supportive clothing called compression garments over your burn to help your skin heal. You may have to wear compression garments all day, every day for several months.
- You may need a skin graft. This surgery takes healthy skin from another area of your body or from a donor to cover your damaged skin.
- You can also have surgery to release areas of your body that have been tightened by contractures, and help you move again.
- A physical therapist can teach you exercises to help you regain motion in areas that have been tightened by contractures.