(This Entry is for general information only and therefore, not a substitute for the medical advice of a GP. If you have any concerns or doubts about a burn you should seek medical advice immediately.)
What Is A Burn?
Burns, internal and external, are essentially, damage to the skin’s tissues; there are two main ways in which external burns can happen. The first is having direct contact with a hot object/substance e.g. ovens, naked flames, and hot liquids1. The second is radiated heat from an extreme source e.g. industrial furnace or the sun2. Electricity, hazardous chemicals3 - and friction can also cause burns. Internal burns can only be caused by direct contact e.g. breathing in hot fumes or chemicals.
The Types Of Burn
The skin is made up of three layers, as each layer is damaged, the seriousness of the burn increases:
Damage to the top layer of skin4 is known as superficial burns or first-degree burns. The skin turns red and swells slightly; superficial burns are usually very painful.
If the damage has reached the second layer5 it is known as a partial thickness burn or a second-degree burn. The skin turns deep red or purple, swells, blisters and may weep (a slow, steady discharge of water). Partial thickness burns are even more painful because the nerve endings have been damaged.
Full thickness burns or third-degree burns are caused when all three of the skin’s layers have been reached and some of the tissue below may be damaged. Usually the skin has been completely burned away and it appears pale or blackened. As the nerve endings have been completely destroyed in these burns there is no pain.
These classifications give a general idea as to what the levels of burn are, but usually you have more than one depth of burn at the same time.
How To Treat Burns
With any type of burn, you first need to remove any further risk of burning.
Firstly, remove the person (or yourself) from the area, or remove the cause of the burn. Any burning clothing should quickly be put out by dousing with water or by rolling on the floor. If the burn is caused by a chemical, quickly remove any excess chemicals from it by washing with running water
Then remove any constricting clothing, jewellery, or watches (if there is any clothing attached to the burn do not remove it as it will cause more damage to it). It is important to do this because the skin swells up, and also because any metal items will retain the heat and so keep on burning the skin.
Cooling The Burn
If a burn is not cooled then it can spread through the skins tissues, this is because the heat, still in the burn, radiates out. The best, and easiest way to cool a burn is to use lots of water, either in a bath, shower or under a running tap.
There are also many home cures for soothing burns, they may contain anti-inflammatories (e.g. aloe vera) or cooling agents (e.g. the mint in toothpaste). However, many of these do not help burns at all, and some can even damage them even more (toothpaste actually can open up wounds). Aloe vera gel, lavender oil and lemon juice are the only home cures for burning that are pretty well foolproof 6. Never put greasy substances on a burn (like butter) because they trap in the heat and don't allow it to cool down.
Treating The Different Types Of Burns
Superficial burns can be treated easily at home, the best way is to cool and soothe the burn with water for 10 - 20 minutes until the burning stops, usually by having a cool shower or bath. small areas can be cooled under a running tap. Do not use ice to cool the burn however because if the area goes numb it may cause frostbite and more damage to the skin. when the burning stops leave it to heal on its own7.
Most partial thickness burns can also be treated at home, cool the burn in the same way as for superficial burns, then dress with a dry, sterile bandage (a bandage will need to be changed at least once a day, first cleaning the burn with soap and water and then removing any dead skin), the bandage is needed because burns are very susceptible to infection. This is why you do not burst the blister, as it is the natural barrier and stops the infection getting in. Pain relievers, such as aspirin, can be used to ease discomfort.
For any internal burns, burns to hands, face, groin, any major joint, any full thickness burns, and any burn you are not sure about how to deal with, medical aid needs to be obtained immediately.
For any burn where medical help is needed, it is important that the person is given water in small doses until help arrives, so that they do not dehydrate8. Cover the wound with a dry, clean, and non-furry cloth (e.g. a tea towel), make sure you don't wrap it around too tightly, as this will constrict the area. The loss of skin also means there will be a serious drop in body temperature and it is important to keep the person warm. Cover them body with a blanket, making sure you don't get any fluff in the wound. It may also be necessary to treat for shock (this involves laying the patient down with something soft under the head and with legs raised above his/her head, covering in a blanket, loosening of any tight clothing and staying with the person until help arrives, and doing all you can to avoid anxiety and stress).
For any chemical burns wash liberally with running water to get rid of excess chemicals, then treat as a normal cut or wound. If the chemical is in the eye or another sensitive area seek medical aid straight away and wash with copious amounts of saline solution or, if that’s not available, ordinary water.
Although electrical burns may look small they can be very deep and may interfere with electrical activity in the body, so extreme care needs to be taken and medical aid sought.
Hospital Treatment and Healing
If the person is taken to a hospital, it is because the burn is extremely serious. The damaged area will still be protected by dressings, which will be changed regularly. Also, as there is a lot of water lost through the wound, the patient needs to be constantly monitored, and may require intravenous liquids. Burns can easily get infected, if infection is suspected then antibiotics may be used. Some new research has showed that some kinds of enzymes can be beneficial to serious burns victims by removing the dead skin without surgery.
Most superficial burns and partial thickness burns heal in a few weeks but serious partial thickness and full thickness burns may keep someone in hospital for a few weeks. However, if they make a speedy recovery the skin that grows back is not as flexible as the old skin. For large areas, skin grafts are usually the only way for serious burns to heal properly.
Many people, who have received full thickness burns, even though they may heal completely, will need physiotherapy (using physical methods such as massage, heat and exercises to restore movement to parts of the body) because the new skin isn’t as flexible, and also because they may have spent a long period of time without using a part of their body.
What Is Sunburn?
Sunburn is a type of burn that is caused by over exposure to the sun; it starts with an initial redness of the skin then is followed by varying degrees of pain, and may cause blistering. The sunburnt area feels hot to the touch and severely sunburned people can develop fever, chills, dizziness and dehydration. After the skin has healed the dead skin peels off as it is replaced by new skin. The level of severity of the sunburn is directly proportional to the length and the strength of the exposure.
Sunburns are caused because the sun radiates UV (ultraviolet) rays, these can get through the epidermis the dermis. The living cells in the dermis are very sensitive to sunlight, which dehydrates them and so damages them. Also the UV rays can affect the DNA in these cells, which has been proved to be the starting point of skin cancer.
To try to stop the sunlight getting through, the body produces more melanin, which accumulates on top of the nucleus of the cells in the epidermis and protects the DNA from the UV light. This melanin is the pigment that makes the skin, eyes, and hair to have colour (people who can’t produce melanin are called albinos) when the body produces more it causes the skin to tan. People who naturally produce more melanin have darker skin, and so are less affected by the suns rays. This means that the people who are most susceptible to sunburn are fair-skinned people, who don’t tan easily (i.e. people who produce little melanin).
The Consequences of Sunburn
As well as the immediate discomfort, repeated overexposure to the sun should be avoided, as permanent skin damage can develop. This can take the form of premature aging and skin cancer, one of the main causes of which is overexposure to UV light. Briefly, skin cancer can take two forms, melanoma and non-melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious; it forms on the outer layers of the skin and can spread to other parts of the body, if not detected early, it can be fatal. Non-melanoma is more common and comes in two forms, basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas, both of which are tumours. Although the two forms are different in appearance and behave in different ways they are seldom fatal.
What You Should Do If You Get Sunburnt
Sunburn should be treated as soon as it happens – or as soon as you notice. After mild sunburn, a hot shower will bring about the peeling sooner and so get rid of the irritation earlier.
You can also bathe the burnt area in lukewarm water, to which you can add, lavender oil, camomile, eucalyptus or baby oil. Another thing to do is to use aloe vera gel on the burn. These natural remedies are a good way to cool and soothe the burn and, as they all contain natural anti-inflammatory chemicals, they reduce the swelling.
However, the natural remedies do not help the burn to heal quicker, to do that you need to use moisturisers that are specifically for this purpose, called after sun lotions. They also cool and soothe the burn and contain anti-inflammatory substances. After sun lotions also contain additives that help the burn to heal quicker. It is best to avoid oily or greasy things though, because they trap in the heat and the pain in, and so don’t actually help at all.
Recently there has been research into DNA repair enzymes that will stop damage to the DNA in the skin cells, and the results have proved successful in significantly reducing the extent and longevity of sunburns as well.
If the sunburn has blistered, never burst the blister as this can cause serious infection. If the sunburn is blistered, and covers a large area, or if the person is shivering and showing signs of dehydration, seek medical help immediately.
Funnily enough the best thing you can do is not get sunburnt, see Sensible Sun Exposure for more information on how to prevent overexposure.