What happens when we burn ourselves? – Burns range from irritating to life-threatening – learn about the different types now – Most people associate burns with flames, but they have many other causes. A burn is medically defined as ‘coagulative destruction’ of the skin, meaning any energy source can cause one. This energy damages underlying skin proteins and fat cells, causing breaks in the continuity of the skin. Burns are generally classified by their depth. First-degree (superficial) burns leave painful, red skin, but without large blisters. Only the epidermis is damaged, so regrowth is fast.
Second-degree burns (partial thickness) can be either superficial or deep. The skin usually blisters and can be very painful. The dermis layer is also damaged so regrowth is slow, taking several weeks or even months. In third-degree burns (full thickness) the skin is left white or pale, with no blistering and little to no sensation. The basal growth layer is destroyed so no new skin can grow. Even minor burns can cause problems if not treated properly.
The first priority is to stop the burning process; cold running water is often the best first treatment. Infection, dehydration and protein loss are all problems that occur next, which our resilient skin can solve itself if the injury isn’t too severe. Indeed, first and second-degree burns will generally heal themselves over time, though there may be some permanent scarring. Full-thickness burns don’t heal, so skin grafts, taken from other parts of the patient’s body, are needed in these severe cases.
How burns are measured
Classified by their depth, each burn case requires unique treatment
- The skin
Your skin is vital to your wellbeing. It has multiple important functions, including temperature control, sensation and appearance.
- Basal layer
This layer is the key to regeneration, as new skin cells grow from here. If undamaged, regrowth occurs without any need for medical assistance.
- First-degree burn
Only the uppermost skin layers (known as the epidermis) are affected, but the burn is painful, leaving the area red, raw and tender to the touch.
- Second-degree burn
These partial-thickness burns affect the upper or deep dermal layers, and like fi rst-degree burns hurt a lot because the nerve endings remain active.
Blisters appear when the epidermis separates from the dermis, and are especially common in first and second-degree burns.
- Third-degree burn
Deep burns destroy the basal layer and nerve endings, so they are painless. Regrowth will not occur alone, so skin grafts are needed.
Four major causes of burns
- Thermal Heat can come from a flame or friction (known as dry burns), hot liquids that cause scalds (known as wet burns) or direct contact with hot surfaces.
- Chemical Alkalis (like bleach) burn for hours, whereas acids are short-lived. These require no heat to cause a burn, and can take some time to develop after skin contact.
- Radiation Ionising radiation burns can be widespread across the body due to exposure. Sunburn is a common type of radiation burn, caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) in sunlight.
- Electrical These often cause deep burns that heal very slowly. A small skin defect may mask deep underlying damage, which can extend throughout the entire body.