Burning Symptoms

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What are the signs of burning problems?

Burning symptoms fall into two main categories: paresthesias and tissue-damage burning symptoms. The two categories are easily distinguished by their very different causes. Temporary paresthesia is a prickling or pins-and-needles sensation that may be perceived as a burning symptom. It is most familiar as the sensation you feel when your leg or arm has fallen asleep because of persistent pressure on a nerve after staying in one position for too long. Chronic paresthesia lasts longer and is caused by nerve damage from either trauma or a neurologic disorder.

In contrast, tissue-damage burning symptoms (or burns) are described as a feeling of heat that is nearly always accompanied by some degree of pain (except in severe burns that have caused nerve destruction), ranging from a mildly sharp pain (as in a mild sunburn) to a searing pain. These symptoms are caused by tissue damage from exposure to chemicals, radiation, heat, electricity or sunlight. Burn injuries often affect the skin, but they can also affect mucous membranes and internal tissues or organs.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of the following symptoms: blackened or singed mucous membranes; bluish lips, fingernails or mucous membranes; burn caused by a chemical, gas or electricity; cold, wet skin; confusion or loss of consciousness for even a brief moment; difficulty breathing; dilated pupils; a skin or tissue-damage burn the size of your palm or larger; or smoke inhalation. In the case of paresthesia burning symptoms, seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have difficulty with memory, thinking, talking or comprehension; difficulty walking; impaired balance and coordination; or muscle weakness, especially on one side.

If your burning symptoms are persistent or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.

What other symptoms might occur with burning symptoms?

Burning symptoms may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the skin may also involve other body systems.

Symptoms that may occur along with tissue-damage burning symptoms

Burning symptoms caused by tissue-damage burns to the skin will vary depending on the type of tissue damage sustained: first-, second-, or third-degree damage. Because the most serious burns destroy nerves, they may actually be painless. Burning symptoms may accompany other symptoms including:

  • Blistering
  • Deep tissue damage extending through and beneath your skin (in third-degree burns)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Peeling or white, charred skin
  • Redness, warmth or swelling

Airway symptoms that may occur along with tissue-damage burning symptoms

Burning symptoms caused by tissue-damage burns to the airways will vary depending on the type of substance causing the burn, as well as the extent of the burn. Burning symptoms may accompany other symptoms affecting the airways including:

  • Blackened mucus (stained by carbon)
  • Burned lips and mouth
  • Burns on or around your head
  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hoarse voice or loss of voice
  • Singed hairs lining mucus membranes
  • Wheezing

Symptoms that may occur along with paresthesia burning symptoms

Paresthesia burning symptoms may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:

  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Loss of vision or changes in vision
  • Muscle weakness, especially on one side
  • Pins-and-needles (prickling) sensation
  • Sleep disorders

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, burning symptoms may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Bluish lips, fingernails and mucous membranes; blackened or singed mucous membranes
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty walking
  • Difficulty with memory, thinking, talking, comprehension, writing or reading
  • Drainage or pus from the burn; red streaks spreading from the burn
  • Impaired balance and coordination
  • Muscle weakness, especially on one side
  • Skin or tissue-damage burn the size of your palm or larger, or a deep-tissue damage burn
  • Smoke inhalation

What causes burning symptoms?

Paresthesia burning symptoms are a prickly sensation caused by nerve damage from either trauma or a neurologic disorder. Tissue-damage burning symptoms are caused by physical burns to the tissue from exposure to chemicals, radiation, heat, electricity or sunlight.

Tissue-damage causes of burning symptoms

Burning symptoms from tissue-damage burns may be caused by a variety of burning agents including:

  • Certain chemicals

  • Electricity

  • Gases

  • Heat

  • Radiation

  • Sunlight

Causes of paresthesia burning symptoms

Paresthesia burning symptoms may be caused by several neurologic disorders or conditions that damage the nerves including:

  • Adverse effects of medication, especially anticancer chemotherapy

  • Alcohol abuse

  • Diabetes (chronic disease that affects your body’s ability to use sugar for energy)

  • Multiple sclerosis (disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing weakness, coordination and balance difficulties, and other problems)

  • Nerve entrapment or compression, such as of the ulnar nerve in the arm

  • Transient ischemic attack (temporary stroke-like symptoms that may be a warning sign of an impending stroke)

  • Vitamin deficiencies

Serious or life-threatening causes of burning symptoms

In some cases, burning symptoms may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:

  • Extensive or intense exposure to elements that can cause deep-tissue damage that may or may not show on the outside of the body (for example, radiation, gases, chemicals or electricity)

  • Extensive or intense exposure to tissue-damaging substances to the extent that they cause second- or third-degree burns (burning through the dermis and epidermis or deeper)

  • Stroke

Questions for diagnosing the cause of burning symptoms

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your burning symptoms including:

  • If burned, how long have you had this burn? Do you recall how you got it?

  • How long have you had your symptoms? What brought them on?

  • Are you having or have you had any difficulty breathing?

  • Do you have any other symptoms?

What are the potential complications of burning symptoms?

Because burning symptoms can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Disfigurement

  • Paralysis

  • Permanent disability

  • Permanent nerve damage

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 7
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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.
  1. Burns. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/burns.html
  2. NINDS paresthesia information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/paresthesia/paresthesia.htm
  3. Tierney LM Jr., Saint S, Whooley MA (Eds.) Current Essentials of Medicine (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
  4. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.