Thermal Burns and Other Burn Injuries

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nurse pouring water on patient's severe skin burn on index finger - possible 3rd degree burn
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Many people think of burns as an external contact injury, such as when you touch something hot and blister your hand—a thermal burn. But burns can occur inside your body and result from several causes, including chemicals (inhaled or swallowed) and electricity. Of course, anyone who has experienced a sunburn knows that radiation from the sun’s rays can cause burns too.

Regardless of the type of burn, doctors treat any burn injury based on the degree of burn involved. First-degree and mild second-degree burns can be safely treated at home most of the time. Severe second- and third-degree burns require medical intervention, which can include hospitalization and skin grafts. To avoid complications from burns, learn what to do for thermal, chemical, electrical and radiation burns.

First Aid for Thermal Burns

Thermal burns occur when your skin comes in contact with heat or flame. Some common causes or sources of thermal burns include:

  • Appliances, such as stoves, ovens and curling irons

  • Cooking oil

  • Fire or open flames due to residential fires, fireplaces, and gas cooktops

  • Water including hot or boiling water and steam that cause scalding

Severe second- and third-degree thermal burns should be evaluated by a medical professional. But for milder burns you can take these first-aid steps:

  • Apply cool compresses to the burn site or run cool water over it for several minutes.

  • Cover the burn area with a sterile dressing, such as gauze. Do not apply cotton balls or any type of fluffy cotton, as the fibers may stick to the wound.

  • If the burn area covers a large percentage of the total body surface or if it wraps around the entire body, call 911 for emergency medical assistance. Also call 911 if the burned person has trouble breathing or appears to have other injuries like broken bones.

  • Seek medical treatment for burns of any severity to the face, hands, feet or genitals and for burns to infants or elderly people.

What to Do for Electrical Burns

Accidental exposure to electricity can cause electrocution, and it also can result in burns outside and inside the body. When electricity passes through the body, it burns tissue all along its pathway. After an electrical shock, you might notice a burn injury to your skin where the current entered and another mark where the current exited the body. In addition to these surface burn injuries, you may experience internal burns.

If you witness or suspect a person has sustained an electrical injury, take these first-aid steps:

  • Shut off the electrical current. Never touch a person experiencing an electrical shock until you know for certain the current has stopped flowing through their body.

  • Resuscitate, if necessary, and call 911.

  • If the person is conscious but appears to have other injuries, such as broken bones, seek emergency medical assistance.

For mild electrical burns, you can perform first aid:

  • Apply a cool compress to the burned area. Never apply ice packs, as this can delay the healing process. Look for at least two burn marks: one where the current entered the body and one where it exited.

  • Apply a light gauze dressing, if possible.

  • For burns around the mouth that occur in a child who chewed on an electrical cord, seek medical attention.

  • Monitor the person’s health for several days after experiencing an electrical burn and go to the doctor if he or she experiences any change in mental status (such as confusion or seizure), abnormal heart rhythm, or trouble with muscle coordination.

First Aid for Internal and External Chemical Burns

Chemicals can cause burns both inside and outside the body. People who swallow or inhale caustic substances can experience mild or severe internal burns to their nasal passages, lungs, and throat. You should always call 911 for emergency medical assistance for any suspected internal chemical burns. Do not induce vomiting. Symptoms may include:

  • Frothing or foaming around the mouth

  • Inability to talk

  • Visible burns to the lips and oral area

  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing

Toddlers are particularly susceptible to eating or swallowing cleaning products and other noxious chemicals. Always keep these products out of the reach of children.
Mild chemical burns to the skin, on the other hand, may be safely treated with first aid at home. Follow these steps:

  • Brush any dry chemical residue off the skin. Be sure to wear gloves or other protective gear to avoid contact with the chemical.

  • Flush the area with cool water for several minutes to remove the chemicals. If the eye is burned, flush with plain water for at least five minutes and seek medical attention.

  • Carefully take off any clothing, jewelry, watch or other items that were contaminated by the chemical. Then take a cool shower to rinse off any remaining residue.

  • Apply a loose gauze bandage to the burned area.

All severe second-degree or third-degree chemical burns require immediate medical attention. You also should seek professional care for milder chemical burns that:

  • Are larger than about three inches in width or diameter.

  • Cover a major joint, like the elbow or knee.

  • Occur on the face, hands, feet or genitals.

  • Wrap all the way around the body.

Sunburn Care

Too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation can result in a burn. Of course, the sun isn’t the only cause of radiation burns. These injuries also can occur due to occupational exposures and targeted radiation therapies for certain cancers. If you experience a radiation burn for those reasons, rely on your doctor’s advice for how to care for the injury.

But for the most common type of radiation burn—sunburn—try these strategies to reduce discomfort and promote healing:

  • Apply cool compresses (not ice packs) to the burn area.

  • For blistered skin, apply light gauze bandages if possible. If not possible, be sure to launder your sheets every day until the blisters have healed. Wearing clean t-shirts or lightweight knit pants can absorb any oozing from weeping sunburns until they heal.

  • To relieve sunburn pain, take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers like acetaminophen (if you are not allergic to it). If the skin is not blistered, you also can apply OTC sunburn creams and ointments that contain benzocaine to numb the skin. Some people find relief applying aloe vera gel to a sunburn. If the sunburn becomes very itchy, you can try taking an OTC antihistamine product.

Most people do not require medical attention for sunburn. However, if an infant or very elderly person sustains a sunburn, see a doctor.
No matter what causes a burn injury, your response to it can mean the difference between healing well and developing complications. Use common sense and basic first-aid techniques to care for burns at home or seek medical attention when appropriate.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 27
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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