As the lid of the pot is lifted, an angry burst of steam hisses and shoots out at your arm, burning the skin and causing you to recoil in pain. You try applying antiseptic cream on the affected area but blisters still form anyway and the skin begins to peel.
What was just described is a typical burn injury, resulting from a very common situation as most burns take place at home or in the office. Most of the time, these types of burns are minor and require minimal care.
However, if improperly managed, burns can give rise to complications. Since a burn damages the skin, the protective barrier for our body, we are left exposed to bacterial infections. Skin also regulates our body temperature, meaning that if a large part of it is injured, we lose body heat.
It is then imperative to know to what degree your burn may be and the next appropriate course of action.
Degrees of Burns
First-degree burns only affect the first layer of skin, the epidermis, and are characterized by redness of the skin and pain, akin to that of a sunburn.
Second-degree burns have two types, the first being superficial, partial-thickness burns. The first and second layers of skin are injured, blisters may develop and the pain can be severe. An example of this would be a severe sunburn which blisters following several hours.
The second type is a deep partial-thickness burn which, like its name suggests, injure deeper skin layers. Unlike its superficial counterpart, deep partial-thickness burns do not form blisters and can be white, yellow or brown in appearance. Little to no pain accompanies the burn depending on the nerve damage.
Third-degree burns refer to the damage or destruction of all the skin layers and tissue under the skin. Much like deep partial-thickness burns, not much pain comes with these since nerve endings have been damaged.
Fourth-degree burns are not as common as lower degrees of burns, but the damage caused is much more severe. The burn is much worse than third-degree burns, extending down to injure muscles, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels and bones. Both third and fourth-degree burns will always require medical aid.
Some ways to treat a first-degree burn or sunburns at home include applying a damp, cool cloth on the burnt area or by holding the area under running water until the pain ceases. Take cool showers frequently and apply lotions containing aloe vera to ease the pain and inflammation.
Avoid exposing the affected area to sunlight as it can get sunburnt easily; cover it or apply sunscreen over the area.
For second-degree burns, rinse the burnt skin with cool water until the pain stops but do not use ice-cold water or ice as this may further damage the skin and the underlying tissue. Do not break blisters as it exposes the vulnerable area to infection. If the burn is on the upper or lower limbs, keep the limb raised.
Seek medical attention if the pain persists and becomes worse, or if you develop signs of infection, such as swelling, pus and fever.
Third- and fourth-degree burns must always be treated by medical professionals – under no circumstance should you try to treat them at home as they have a high risk of infection and may cause patients to go into shock.
The skin can turn white or black and if major blood vessels were destroyed, skin grafting or surgical procedures may be needed to replace the protective layer of skin. Skin grafting is the process of taking otherwise healthy skin from another area of your body or from a donor to cover the damaged skin.
Severe burns that affect large parts of the body may require more intensive treatments, such as intravenous (IV) antibiotics to prevent infection or IV fluids to replace lost fluids.
Pain from the burn also needs to be managed, depending on the type and severity although it is not an indicator of how bad the burn is. Third-degree burns and onward have little to no pain accompanying them as nerve endings may have been destroyed.
Even though most burns heal without leaving behind lasting problems, deeper and more severe burns can leave scars and other complications. In those situations, seeking medical attention swiftly is paramount to boost chances of recovery and may even have an impact on survival.