by Peggy Deland
Burns are injuries that result from an exposure to excessive heat, chemicals, radiation or electricity. The most common burns are those caused by heat and sunburns, which are a result of excessive exposure to radiation from the sun. Over 2 million people are treated for burns each year, the vast majority of which cause no major complications. However, 3,000 to 4,000 people die each year as a result of severe burns.
Burns are most likely to occur when proper precautions have not been taken by the victims. Failure to use a pot holder or insulated glove when handling hot pots and pans is a very common cause of thermal burns. Excessive sun exposure frequently leads to sunburns, particularly in climates where the UV index is very high. Sunburns can be completely prevented by limiting sun exposure, using a high SPF sunblock and, if necessary, wearing a wide-brimmed hat when outdoors.
Burns cause tissue damage, which ranges from very minor to severe enough to require skin grafts. Second- and third-degree burns usually lead to permanent scars that may be disfiguring. Widespread burns may cause severe dehydration due to the damaged skin's inability to retain moisture. Children and older adults are most likely to experience severe complications from burns.
There are four types of burns, grouped by the cause of the tissue damage. Thermal burns are the most common and are caused by exposure to excess heat. Radiation burns are a result of exposure to ionizing radiation; sunburn is the most common example. Chemical burns result from the skin coming in contact with caustic chemicals, and electrical burns are caused by contact with strong currents.
Burns are also grouped by severity. First-degree burns are those that only affect the top layer of skin and are usually red in appearance. Second-degree burns affect both the top and middle layers of skin and often cause blistering. Third-degree burns extend into all three layers of skin and usually cause nerve damage.
Most minor burns can be treated at home with first aid measures. Minor first- or second-degree sunburns and thermal burns should be soaked in cold, but not iced, water for at least 15 minutes and a burn relief product applied to the area. If a dressing is used, it should be changed daily. Medical attention is required for extensive first- or second-degree burns, and all chemical, electrical or third-degree burns. Chemical burns should be flushed with copious amounts of water before going to the emergency room.
First- and second-degree burns may take days to weeks to heal, depending on the location of the burn, the age and health status of the patient and the size of the burn. Burns that are located on areas of the skin that have more blood flow generally heal more quickly than others. Small third-degree burns may take several weeks to heal and nearly always leave scars. Large third-degree burns may not heal for months or years, during which multiple surgeries are performed to graft new skin onto the area and release tight scar tissue.