How Serious Is My Burn?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1.1 million people seek medical care for burn injuries each year in the United States. Of those, approximately 50,000 require hospitalization. Would you know when to seek medical care for a burn?

When you suffer a burn of any kind or severity, you feel pain because the heat destroys your skin cells. Minor burns often heal on their own in about a week with minimal at-home treatment remedies because they only damage the top layer of skin. More severe burns, however, can damage skin, sweat glands, hair follicles, fat and even muscle. They also take much longer to heal and require immediate medical attention to avoid complications like inflammation, infection and sepsis.

How serious is my burn?

Burns range from first-degree to fourth degree depending on the depth of the burn. It’s important to understand whether your burn can be safely treated at home, or if you need medical treatment. Here are a few tips:

  1. Red, swollen skin
    This is most likely a first-degree burn. First-degree burns affect the top layer of skin and typically resolve within 48-72 hours. A mild sunburn is considered a first-degree burn. Immediate symptoms include redness, swelling and pain. As your skin heals, you may also experience peeling. You can safely and effectively treat this type of burn at home with a cool (no ice) compress, aloe vera gel and ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Never apply butter to a burn, as it can lead to infection.
    When to seek care: When a first-degree burn covers a large portion of the body, or the victim is an infant or elderly person, seek emergency medical treatment.
  2. Red, swollen, blistered skin
    This is most likely a second-degree burn. Second-degree burns affect the first two layers of skin. Smaller burn areas can take up to 10 days to heal. However, pigment changes can persist. Common causes of second-degree burns include very hot water, open flames, hot objects (e.g., pots and pans), sun, chemicals or electricity. Symptoms include all the signs of a first-degree burn as well as blisters. Skin will be noticeably swollen as well as very red or splotchy. If a second-degree burn is less than three inches in diameter (across), the burn can be safely and effectively treated at home with a cool (no ice) compress, aloe vera gel and a loose gauze bandage. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication like ibuprofen or acetaminophen may also be used to alleviate pain symptoms.
    When to seek care: If OTC medications do no alleviate symptoms of intense pain, or you begin to experience additional swelling, redness, fever or oozing, seek immediate medical treatment. Mayo Clinic also recommends using sunscreen on the area (once healed) for at least 1 year after the burn.
  3. Black, brown or white skin (with or without gaping wounds)
    This is most likely a third- fourth- or fifth-degree burn. These types of burns should be considered life threatening and require emergency medical care. These types of burns are often caused by hot oil, grease, chemicals, electrical currents and hot liquids. They are very serious and affect the outer layer of skin, the dermis (second layer of skin), muscles, tendons and bones. Pain may not be present with these types of burns if nerve endings are destroyed, but infection is a major concern. The skin may appear charred or have patches that appear white, brown or black. Immediate treatment includes laying the person flat and elevating the burned area above their heart (if possible) to help prevent shock. Keep them warm and comfortable while watching for signs of breathing difficulties. Call 911 or get them to the nearest emergency room, as immediate medical care is required—do not attempt to treat serious burns at home.

If you have sustained a burn injury and are concerned about infection or other complications like fever, blistering or oozing, seek emergency medical attention for your burn right away. Emerald Coast Urgent Care is open for walk-in appointments 7 days a week.

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