A burn is an injury to your skin tissue, usually caused by contact with intense heat or cold, electricity or chemicals.
In the UK, around 175,000 people visit the accident and emergency department each year for burn injuries, and 16,100 are admitted to hospital. Burns usually affect your skin, but other parts of your body can be injured. For example, inhaling hot fumes and gases can damage your airways and lungs.
The severity of your burn will depend on how deeply it has affected your skin tissue. There are three types of burn: superficial, partial-thickness and full-thickness.
Superficial burns only affect the surface of your skin (epidermis). Your skin will be red and painful, but not blistered. Mild sunburn is an example of a superficial burn.
Partial-thickness burns are deeper burns that damage your epidermis and dermis (inner layer of your skin) to varying degrees. If the damage to your dermis is shallow, your skin may be pale pink and painful, with blisters. Deeper burns to your dermis will cause your skin to become dry or moist, blotchy and red. Deep partial-thickness burns may or may not be painful and they may blister.
All layers of your skin are damaged by full-thickness burns. Your skin will look white or brown and will be dry and leathery. Because the nerves in your skin are destroyed with full-thickness burns, you probably won't feel any pain or have blisters.
Symptoms of burns vary depending on their severity. They include:
Symptoms of a burn to your airway include:
There are a number of possible complications of burns, which include the following.
Severe extensive burns can be fatal.
Burns are caused by:
Most burns are easily diagnosed and you will know yourself if you have a burn.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Your doctor will want to determine the cause, size and thickness of your burn, and whether you have inhaled smoke or chemical fumes.
Treatment for burns depends on how severe they are. You can treat superficial and minor partial-thickness burns caused by heat yourself at home. However, seek urgent medical help from your GP or an accident and emergency department in a hospital for:
If you're not sure about the extent of a burn or how to deal with it, seek medical help for advice.
There are a number of important things you can do to immediately help relieve your symptoms.
After following the first aid advice above, you can continue to treat superficial and minor partial-thickness burns yourself at home.
Don't apply any ointments or creams to a burn. It's also important not to burst any blisters that form on your burn because this makes them more likely to become infected. If you cover the burn with cling film, it may reduce pain and prevent an infection.
There are a range of dressings available, such as hydrocolloid, silicon nylon, polyurethane ﬁlm and biosynthetic dressings as well as antimicrobial dressings that contain silver. However, there isn't any strong scientific evidence to support their use for superficial and partial thickness burns. If you feel you need to use a dressing, ask your pharmacist for advice.
If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Superficial burns will usually heal within two weeks and you shouldn't have much of a scar. If you're unsure how to treat a burn or have any questions, ask your doctor for advice.
If you have a severe burn, you will need to go to hospital. Your doctors will continue first aid measures and protect your damaged skin with dressings. They will also give you medicines for any pain you might have. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist burn unit.
The first stages of treatment at hospital are to evaluate your burn, treat fluid-loss and prevent infection.
After these initial stages of treatment, you may then need to have skin grafts, which are performed by plastic surgeons. Full-thickness burns tend to result in scars that can be difficult to treat and skin grafts can help to minimise scars. Skin from an unaffected part of your body will be used to repair any of your burned skin that can't heal itself. You may later find it useful to have counselling to help you deal with the effects of scars from your burn. Physiotherapy can help you to regain movement in your burned areas.
Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2013.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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