Hot stuff: Burn basics

What is a burn?

A burn is tissue damage caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, sunlight — or nuclear radiation. The most common burns are those caused by scalds, building fires and flammable liquids and gases.

  • First-degree burns affect only the outer layer (the epidermis) of the skin.
  • Second-degree burns damage the epidermis and the layer beneath it (the dermis).
  • Third-degree burns involve damage or complete destruction of the skin to its full depth and damage to underlying tissues.
How does the body react to a severe burn?

Hot stuff: Burn basicsThe swelling and blistering characteristic of burns is caused by the loss of fluid from damaged blood vessels. In severe cases, such fluid loss can cause shock. Burns often lead to infection, due to damage to the skin’s protective barrier.

How are burns treated?

In many cases, topical antibiotics (skin creams or ointments) are used to prevent infection. For third-degree burns and some second-degree ones, immediate blood transfusion and/or extra fluids are needed to maintain blood pressure. Grafting with natural or artificial materials speeds the post-burn healing process.

What is skin grafting?

There are two types of skin grafts. An autologous skin graft transfers skin from one part of the body to another while an allograft transfers skin from another person, sometimes even a cadaver.

Scientists typically take cells from the epidermal layer of skin and then grow them into large sheets of cells in the laboratory. They do not yet know how to grow the lower, dermal layer of skin in the lab. For this reason, surgeons, after removing burned skin, first cover the area with an artificial material and then add the cell sheets on top. This procedure helps encourage the growth of new skin.

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What is the prognosis for severe burn victims?

A few decades ago, burns covering half the body were often fatal. Now, thanks to research, many people with burns covering 90 percent of their bodies can survive, although they often have permanent impairments and scars.

Over half of burn patients in the United States are treated in specialized burn centers, and most hospitals have trauma teams that care exclusively for patients with traumatic injuries that may accompany burns.Where are people treated for burns?

Where can I find more information about burns?
  • The Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation is a nonprofit health organization dedicated to burn prevention and survivor assistance.
  • The American Burn Association is a nonprofit health association dedicated to addressing the problems of burn injuries and burn survivors throughout the United States, Canada and other countries.
  • MEDLINEplus Health Topics: Burns is an NIH National Library of Medicine Web site containing information and links about burns and burn research.
  • The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is an international, nonprofit organization helping burn survivors and their families.
  • Shriners Hospitals for Children is a nationwide network of hospitals that provide no-cost orthopedic and burn care to children under 18 years of age, regardless of financial need.
  • World Burn Foundation is an online resource providing information and support for burn survivors and family members.




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