Degrees of Burns

Burns are some of the most painful, and most common, injuries, and they regularly occur even in the home. When treating burns, it’s important to be able to classify how serious they may be; minor burns can usually be treated at home, while more serious ones may require specialized medical attention.

First degree burns are considered the least serious level. They affect only the outermost layer of skin, which becomes red, painful, and somewhat swollen but doesn’t develop blisters. Sunburn is a typical example, or brief contact with a hot object. If the burn covers a large area of skin, you may need to see a doctor, but at this level home treatment is usually sufficient for managing pain and healing: over-the-counter pain medication, cool water, and maintaining hydration are needed, and the burn generally heals (with some flaking of the damaged skin) within three to six days.

Second degree burns, also known as partial thickness burns, are more serious since they affect the next layer of skin. These burns will also be red in color, but unlike first degree, which are dry in appearance, at this degree they often appear moist. When pressure is applied, the area will turn white. Blisters often form on the skin, which you shouldn’t pop. When properly treated, scarring can be minimal and healing may begin within 10 to 21 days. They do require professional medical attention, and the bandaging needs to be changed frequently to prevent infection. A deep second degree burn, called a deep dermal burn, take longer to heal and require more serious treatment, but these can be hard to distinguish from third degree burns.

Third degree burns damage not only the skin but the fatty tissue beneath it; they can be red, white, or black but the area doesn’t turn white when pressure is applied. At this level, the area may be numb. These burns need immediate, serious medical treatment and take longer to heal; surgery and skin grafting are likely necessary.

Fourth degree burns are the most serious, causing damage down to muscle and bone.

Treating burns, including managing the development of scar tissue, is essential. Call emergency help or your doctor for a burn you think is serious.


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