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Burn Emergencies

Electricity, chemicals, steam, very hot water, and fire can all cause serious burns. The care you receive for burns will depend on the type and severity of your injury. Many burns can be treated in the hospital. Very severe burns may need treatment in a burn center.

Cross section of skin showing first degree burn damaging top layer of skin, second degree burn damaging deep layers of skin and forming blister, and third degree burn destroying top layers of skin and damaging deep tissues.

When to Go to the Emergency Department (ED)

For a second- or third-degree burn, burns all the way around an arm or leg, or any burn that covers large parts of the body, go to the ED or call 911 right away.

What to Expect in the ED

  • Medication will be given to relieve pain.

  • The burn is cooled with moist cloths.

  • A chemical burn will be flushed with water and may be injected with medication.

  • The burn is washed and any damaged tissue is removed. An antibiotic ointment may be applied and the burn covered with a dressing.

  • Fluids are given through a vein in the arm.

  • If smoke was inhaled, the airways may be burned. If so, a tube may be placed in the windpipe (trachea) to help breathing. A chest x-ray may be done to look for damage to the lungs from inhaling smoke. Blood and urine tests may be done to check the body’s levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Follow-up

Some burns can be cared for at home. Burns easily become infected, so careful cleaning and dressing changes are important. Very deep burns often require long-term medical treatment. For these burns, treatment is done in a hospital or burn center. Depending upon the severity of the burn, skin grafts may be needed to replace damaged tissue.

Types of Burns

  • First-degree burns are usually mild. They affect only the outer layer of skin (epidermis). The skin is likely to be red, and there may be some pain and swelling. Most sunburns are first-degree burns.

  • Second-degree burns injure the second layer (dermis) of skin. The skin will be intensely red and may develop blisters. These burns are often very painful.

  • Third-degree burns involve all the layers of skin. Fat, nerves, muscles, and even bone may be burned. The skin may be charred black or appear very white. Pain is likely to be severe. If nerves are damaged, no pain may be felt at all.

 

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