Overview on Burn Injuries

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The skin is the largest organ in the body and does more than simply protect the body from harmful microorganisms. Primarily the skin is very important in maintaining fluid and temperature regulation in the body. When the skin’s integrity is impaired, several problems can result in the body’s homeostasis. Burns (depending on the type and degree) can severely affect the skin’s function which can later result in severe and life-threatening complications if not cared for appropriately and immediately.

Type of Burns

Burn injuries are classified into three general types.

1. Thermal (heat) burns: Thermal burns are caused by flames that come in contact with the skin or other similar hot objects such as flammable vapor that ignite and cause a flash or explosion. The other burns caused by thermal exposure include pressurized steam and hot/boiling liquid.

2. Electrical burns: These types of burns basically are a result of contact with an electrical current which normally comes from high voltage wires or devices which transmit the current into the body causing significant damage to the underlying skin and tissues. The severity of injury from contact with electric currents highly depends on the type of current (direct or alternating), the voltage, the area affected as well as the duration of the contact.

3. Chemical burns: Chemical agents when exposed to the skin can also cause significant burns to the body. The three most common classifications of chemicals that are known to damage the skin tissues are acids, alkalis and organic compounds.

YouTube video about Children First Aid: Burns

Depth of Burns

By determining the depth of burns rescuers can immediately give the appropriate care for a victim depending on the degree of burns sustained. Historically, burns have been classified as first-degree, second-degree, and third-degree burns. However, paramedics and medical care professionals are presently classifying and using the terms; superficial, partial thickness and full thickness burns because these terms provide a more descriptive narrative of the type of tissue damage.

1. First-degree (superficial) burns affect only the skin’s outer layer or the epidermis. Characteristics include redness, tenderness, moderate swelling and mild pain. The most common example of this degree of burns is sunburn. Healing normally occurs without any scarring and usually heals within a week.

2. Second-degree (partial thickness) burns extend through the skins entire outer and inner layer (epidermis and dermis). Universal signs of this degree of burns include swelling, blisters and weeping of fluids and are usually more painful than superficial burns. Intact blisters have a sterile waterproof covering made up of callous skin which protects it from infection. Larger burns of this type often require medical attention.

3. Third-degree (full thickness) burns are the most severe classification of burns which penetrates the entire layers of the skin as well as underlying subcutaneous and muscle tissues. The skin of victims with full thickness burns appear waxy, leathery and sometimes charred or pearly gray. Since full thickness burns affecting several layers of skin, fat and muscle tissue nerve endings on the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin pain receptors are usually damaged and victims may or may not experience pain unlike partial thickness burns. The immediate concerns for victims with this severe degree of burns are imbalances in fluids and electrolytes, shock and systemic infection. In all cases full thickness burns require immediate medical attention.


Alton, T. et al (2012). First Aid, CPR and AED Standard 6th Ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning

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