A burn is an injury from contact between the skin and sources of thermal, electrical, chemical or radiation energies. Exposure to hazardous energy can damage or permanently destroy the skin, as well as affect underlying tissues such as muscles and tendons. The more serious the burn injury, the greater its impact on the victim. A minor burn may not leave behind any permanent damage, but a serious burn could be fatal. Physicians classify burn injuries into four (or sometimes three) degrees according to how severe the damages are to the patient.
Classifying a Burn Injury by Degree
It is important to classify a burn to know how best to treat the injury, as well as to gauge an accurate prognosis of recovery for the victim. Most physicians use a four-degree classification system, but some standards classify burns into only three different degrees. Either way, the lower degrees represent more minor burn injuries while the higher degrees mean serious and potentially life-threatening burns.
- First-degree burn. A first-degree, or superficial, burn injury only affects the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis). A first-degree burn can be painful but will not blister the skin. A first-degree burn may leave some temporary redness but typically will not cause a permanent scar. The skin may appear dry, red and sore to the touch.
- Second-degree burn. A partial-thickness burn injury affects the epidermis and a part of the second layer of skin (the dermis). A second-degree burn injury can have symptoms such as red or swollen skin and blisters. The skin may appear wet or shiny and will hurt to the touch. A second-degree burn can leave permanent scars or changes to the color of your skin.
- Third-degree burn. A third-degree burn injury, or full-thickness burn, destroys rather than damages the first two layers of skin. It can also affect the innermost layer of skin (the subcutaneous tissue) and cause nerve damage. A third-degree burn may not hurt initially because it destroys the nerves. The skin can appear white, yellow, brown, or black with a third-degree burn.
- Fourth-degree burn. The most serious type of burn, a fourth-degree burn, can cause life-threatening damage to the skin and its underlying tissues. Fourth-degree burns reach the deepest, impacting all layers of skin as well as tendons, muscles, and/or bones. Like a third-degree burn, the victim may not feel a fourth-degree burn due to nerve damage.
The stage of a burn injury can change over time if the damage continues to extend deeper into the skin’s tissues during treatment or recovery. Third- and fourth-degree burns can cause complications that go beyond skin damage, such as infections and bone problems. A severe burn could affect many bodily functions and systems, requiring professional medical treatment.
How to Treat a Burn Injury
If you suffer a burn injury, stay calm and try to classify the burn. No blistering will generally mean you can treat the burn yourself at home unless the first-degree burn affects larger than a four-inch area or a sensitive location such as your face or hands. For a first-degree thermal burn, the best course of treatment is generally cooling the burn by running room-temperature water over the affected area. However, electrical, chemical and radiation burns may require different treatments.
A second- to fourth-degree burn will generally require a trip to the hospital. Burn injuries that break the skin have a high risk of infection. A doctor may need to administer a tetanus shot as well as clean and debride the wound to help prevent infection. A doctor can also prescribe pain relievers during recovery. Do not break a blister from a burn injury. Keep the area clean and loosely bandaged while healing. Burns can take weeks or months to heal depending on the degree. Serious burn injuries may require surgeries and skin grafts to repair the damage.