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Burn Classification and How To Treat Them

April 19, 2024Articles

Burns are among the most painful and potentially disfiguring injuries. Because the extreme inflammation caused by intense heat exposures triggers the release of cytokines and prostaglandins that cause pain reactions in nerve endings, even a minor burn on the surface of the skin feels quite painful. On the other hand, the most severe burns destroy the nerves in the skin so the burn victim may feel pain only in the surrounding area rather than the deepest point of the burn.

To understand burn treatments, it’s important to know the different medical classifications for burns and the accepted standards of treatment by the medical community.


Understanding First-Degree Burns

First-degree burns are mild burn injuries. Sometimes called superficial burns, these burns only impact the top layer of skin, the epidermis. The injury site appears red and dry without blistering, cracking, or seeping. First-degree burns result from direct exposure to sources of heat including contact with hot surfaces, hot-water scalds, brief contact with flame, or unprotected sun exposure. First-degree burns are typically treated at home with cool compresses and a topical burn ointment or petroleum jelly. First-degree burns require a doctor’s treatment if they occur on a large area of the body, encircle a limb or body part, or if they occur on the face or genitals.

What is a Second-Degree Burn?

Second-degree burns—also called partial thickness burns— are the most common type of burn injury. A second-degree burn penetrates below the skin’s outer layer and into the second layer of skin. Second-degree burns result from exposure to flame, scalding or boiling water, hot objects, or electrocution. Unlike the dry redness of a first-degree burn, a second-degree burn may appear moist or have a tight, shiny red or darkened appearance. Second-degree burns commonly blister and may seep and peel.

If the burn is in a small area and not on the face or genitals it may be treated at home by immersing the burned area in cool water for ten to fifteen minutes before loosely covering with a clean, dry bandage. For widespread second-degree burns or burns on the face or genitals, it’s best to see a doctor. Medical professionals may apply a burn ointment to protect the patient from infection and aid healing.

Second-degree burns require daily cleaning, the removal of dead skin, and infection protection sometimes including systemic antibiotics. Pain treatment is also recommended for burn victims.

Understanding Third-Degree Burns

Third-degree burns cause damage through three skin layers and into the layer of fat beneath. These are serious burns that require medical treatment even if the burn impacts only a small area. Third-degree burns over a large percentage of the body may be life-threatening. A third-degree burn may not be painful because the nerves have been destroyed. The area may be blackened, leathery, or charred. Sweat glands and hair follicles may be permanently destroyed.

Third-degree burns require hospitalization and serious medical care including removal of the burned tissue, cleaning, coating with protective ointments, and frequent dressing changes. Infection is a serious threat, requiring antibiotic treatments. IV treatment to replace fluids and deliver antibiotics is critical for those with widespread third-degree burns. A patient may require skin grafts to replace destroyed tissue and reconstructive surgery to improve appearance and function.

Fourth and Fifth-Degree Burns

When burns destroy the skin, fat, and muscle, they are classified as fourth-degree burns. A burn that also damages the bone is a fifth-degree burn. These are life-threatening burns that require critical care in a burn unit.

Many patients with serious burn injuries such as those from a structure fire may have burns of multiple degrees. For instance, first and second-degree burns may surround a third-degree burn. Call a New Haven burn injury attorney for a free consultation today.