A burn is damage to the skin’s tissues, usually caused by excessive heat.
Heat is the most obvious cause of burn injuries. This can be direct contact with fires, radiators or hot liquids, but also the radiated heat from an extreme source of heat, such as a furnace or open fire. Burns can also be caused by chemicals, electricity, the sun’s rays, friction (rubbing or chafing) or extreme cold.
Burns usually affect the skin, but other important areas of the body can also be injured. For example, the airways and lungs can be damaged as a result of inhaling hot fumes and gases.
Types of burn
The severity of a burn depends on how deeply it has affected the tissue. There are three categories of burn: superficial, partial thickness and full thickness. These were previously referred to as first, second and third-degree burns.
This is a burn that only affects the surface of the skin. The skin appears and slightly swollen and the burn is almost always painful. A common cause this type of burns is too much exposure to sunlight.
Partial thickness burn
This is a deeper skin burn, but it does not the whole depth of the skin. The skin appears deep red or purple, swollen and blistered. The surface may have a weeping, wet appearance. The skin is extremely painful and hypersensitive, even to air movement.
Full thickness burn
The full depth of the skin is damaged and the skin appears dry and leathery. The skin may be pale or blackened. These burns are surprisingly painless, because the nerve endings within the skin are also destroyed.
Other burn sites
Burns to the face, singeing of eyebrows or nasal hair black deposits in the mouth or sputum indicate that the airways may be burnt and immediate medical attention should be sought.
What to do if someone is burnt?
Personal safety should be the first priority of anyone offering first-aid to a person with burns. It is important to be aware of any ongoing risk of fire, chemicals, or electricity. There may also be risk of toxic fumes or explosion e.g. due to nearby petrol or gas supply.
The next step is to stop the burning process. Any clothing that is not stuck to the burn should be carefully removed. The affected body surface areas should then be flooded with cold water until medical help, if necessary, is available.