What are Burns?
A burn injury usually results from an energy transfer to the body. This can occur in a number of ways:
- Thermal burns (caused by flames, hot surfaces, hot liquids or gases). These occur due to external heat sources that raise the temperature of the skin and tissues and cause tissue cell death or charring.
- Radiation burns – these are burns due to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays of the sun, or to other sources of radiation such as x-ray.
- Chemical burns (caused by strong acids, alkalies, detergents, or solvents). These burns occur as a result of these chemicals coming into contact with the skin and/or eyes.
- Electrical burns (caused by faulty wiring, old plugs, lightning).
What Causes Burns?
When damage to the skin and exposed mucosal surfaces (such as the gullet or airways) are caused by intense heat, boiling water or strong chemicals – we describe this as a burn. While burns are a type of traumatic physical injury caused by thermal, electrical, chemical, or electromagnetic energy, scalds are the damage caused by contact with hot fluids. Both infants and the elderly are at the greatest risk for burn injury. When a burn occurs there may be obvious and immediate damage to the skin, which can cause much pain.
How are Burns Diagnosed?
An evaluation of burns usually includes the location of injury, the body surface area (BSA) affected, and the depth of the burn(s).
If more than ten percent of the body is covered in burns – a person would need hospital treatment (including intravenous fluids). Burns to more than 50 per cent of the body's surface carry a poor chance of survival. Severe burns need specialized long-term management, which may include skin grafts or treatments to prevent contractures, as well as psychological support to deal with scarring.
Burns are divided into three categories that rank the severity of the burns:
1. First-degree burns are the least serious category, characterized by red, painful, swollen areas on the skin that turn white when pressure is applied – typically they heal within three to six days.
2. Second-degree burns (partial thickness burns) are more painful burns that may blister. They usually lead to significant inflammation, and the skin may appear ‘blotchy’, pink, red or mottled. They typically heal within two to three weeks.
3. Third-degree burns (full thickness burns) are the most severe of the three categories. These burns affect all layers of the skin, and may look white or charred. They may not be painful, as the nerves that usually carry pain signals to the brain have been destroyed. This type of burn typically requires a very long time to heal.
Help and Treatment for Burns
Treatment for superficial burns includes placing the burnt area immediately under cold running water for at least ten minutes. For chemical burns run under cold water for 20 minutes. Briefly rinse larger burns, avoiding excessive cooling and remember to remove clothes in the area of the burn where possible, without causing further damage to the skin.
Then either wrap the burned area in a clean clear plastic bag or place a clean smooth material, such as cling film, over the burn to prevent infection. Minor burns can be treated at home with painkillers and sterile dressings never pop blisters as this leaves the skin open to infection! Deep or extensive burns, or burns to the face, hands or across joints, need to be assessed and treated in hospital.
Always seek medical attention immediately if chemical burns occur near or in the eyes (after splashing with water). Children should be taken to a hospital immediately if they suffer serious burns (if the burn is more than superficial), or if any swelling or blistering occurs.
Many herbal and homeopathic remedies have been formulated with specific ingredients to encourage skin health at a cellular level and promote healing. Aloe ferox, Glycorrhiza glabra and Vitamin E oil have been used to help skin rejuvenate and heal – promoting the removal of dead skin cells. Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) has been used for its ability to help keep skin sterile and resistant to infection while soothing and ‘cooling’ the skin.