What is a burn?
A burn occurs when your skin comes into direct contact with or overexposure to any source of injury, damaging the skin tissue in the process.
Types of burn injuries and their symptoms
Burns can happen for different reasons and are commonly classified as follows:
- Thermal burns – These burns are a result of exposure to intense heat sources such as hot objects, scalding liquids, steam, explosions and fire.
- Radiation burns – Sunburn is one of the most common types of radiation burn. Other sources of radiation, such as X-rays or radiation therapy to treat cancer, can also cause the skin to burn.
- Friction burns – Friction between the skin and a hard object causes the surface of the skin to rub off. Abrasions and carpet burns are common examples.
- Chemical burns – Strong acids, caustic solvents or strong household detergents can cause the skin to burn upon contact. These are known as chemical burns.
- Electrical burns – These burns are a result of exposure to an electrical current or a lightning strike.
- Cold burns – Although it may seem an oxymoron, the cold can cause burns to the skin too. This is known as “frostbite”, and it can cause the skin cells to die if the skin is left exposed to the cold too long.
Severity of burns
Burns can be put into different categories according to their severity, with 1st degree burns being least severe and 4th degree burns being the most severe.
- 1st Degree: These burns affect only the outer layer of the skin and are characterised by a mild painful burning sensation, redness and swelling.
- 2nd Degree: These burns damage the deeper layers of the skin and are characterised by blisters and skin which appears shiny, wet and white in colour.
- 3rd Degree: These burns affect all layers of the skin.
- 4th Degree: These burns go beyond the skin and can affect tendons and bones.
First aid for burns
First aid should be done as soon as possible upon receiving the burn injury. 3rd and 4th degree burns require immediate medical attention.
1st and 2nd degree burns on the other hand, are considered minor burns and can be treated at home, especially if they are no larger than 3 inches in diameter.
How to care for minor burns at home?
- First, run cool water over the burnt area for at least 10 minutes to cool it down. If flowing water is not available, apply a cool compress to the area until the pain lessens.
- Remember to remove any jewellery or tight items around the burnt area as the pressure from the items can cause more pain when the burnt area starts to swell.
- Next, apply a hydrating moisturiser over the burnt area to prevent it from drying. Aloe vera is a good moisturising agent that can help provide relief.
- Use a sterile gauze and apply loosely over the burn. It is important to keep air off the burn and protect blistered skin. Do not put too much pressure on the skin as it can worsen the pain.
- If the burn is causing pain, take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
What not to do when treating burns?
Don’t apply ice
You may have been told in the past to apply ice, but don’t. Putting ice directly onto your burn can do more harm than good. Prolonged contact can cause frostbite and damage your skin. Stick to using a cool, clean compress to reduce the pain.
Don’t apply toothpaste
Using toothpaste as a burn treatment is another ineffective ‘remedy’ that you should not follow. It was probably thought that the minty, cooling sensation that toothpaste has would soothe a burn. In reality, toothpaste can irritate the skin and make a burn more prone to infection.
Don’t apply home remedies
There are some myths and old wives’ tales passed down from generation to generation that involves applying butter, egg whites and even oil to treat burns.
Not only are these ‘remedies’ unproven, they can actually introduce bacteria and unclean foreign substances to the burn area. Additionally, oil can trap heat and prevent your skin from cooling down. To reduce your risk of bacterial infection, avoid applying these products on your burn.
Don’t burst blisters
Blisters are your body’s natural way of protecting your skin layers against infection so leaving them alone may be good for your burn. If your blister does break, make sure that you wash the site with water, then clean and apply an antibiotic cream to prevent it from getting infected.
When to go to A&E
Severe burns (3rd and 4th degree) can make the skin look leathery, or appear charred. You may notice patches of white, brown or black skin around the burn. A burn larger than 3 inches in diameter is also considered a severe burn. If the burn has any of these characteristics, or was due to sources like electricity and chemicals, seek immediate medical attention at the nearest Accident & Emergency (A&E) department.
Article reviewed by Dr Samuel Low, clinical director at Parkway Hospitals
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