Published by Bupa's Health Information Team, July 2011.
This factsheet is for people who have a burn, or who would like information about burns.
A burn is an injury to the skin tissue, usually caused by contact with intense heat, electricity or chemicals.
In the UK, around 175,000 people visit the accident and emergency department of a hospital 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, such as your airways and lungs, from inhaling hot fumes and gases.
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 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, brown or black and dry, leathery or waxy. Because the nerves in your skin are destroyed with full-thickness burns, you won't feel any pain or have blisters.
Symptoms vary depending on the severity of your burn. They include:
Symptoms of a burn to your airway include:
There are a number of complications of burns. These are listed below.
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. He or she may also ask you about your medical history. 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 their severity. You can treat superficial and minor partial-thickness burns that are caused by heat yourself at home. However, seek urgent medical help from your GP or an accident and emergency department in a hospital for:
Also seek medical help for advice if you're not sure about the extent of a burn or how to deal with it.
For burns caused by chemicals, if possible look at the advice on the label of the chemical product. For full-thickness burns or burns that are caused by chemicals or electricity, it's important that you start cooling the burn immediately under cool or tepid water (unless instructed otherwise on the chemical product) and then call for emergency help. While you're waiting, there are a number of important things you can do.
You can treat superficial and minor partial-thickness burns yourself at home. Begin by cooling your burn with cool or tepid water for 10 to 30 minutes or until the pain is relieved. Don't use iced water.
Only apply ointments or creams to very mild sunburn and if in doubt, don't use creams and ointments. Don't apply them to any deeper burns that have caused a change in your skin colour or blisters. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with the ointment or cream and if you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.
Don't 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 speed healing.
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, but there isn't any strong scientific evidence to support their use. If you feel you need to use a dressing, ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
If you need pain relief, you can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Always read the patient information 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're severely injured over large areas of your body with partial and full-thickness burns, you will need to be admitted 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.
If your doctor suspects that your skin is infected, you will be given antibiotics.
If you have lost large amounts of fluid through your burned skin, you will be closely monitored and may need to have fluids through a drip to help your circulation.
Your doctor may refer you to a specialist burn unit. Full-thickness burns tend to result in scars that can be difficult to treat and you may require skin grafts to minimise scars. Skin grafts are performed by plastic surgeons. 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 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.
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.
Publication date: July 2011