What Are Burns?

what are burns

Burns are a common wound that occurs to the skin, and is the fourth leading cause of injury in the world (behind auto accidents, falls, and violence).

What Causes Burns?

Burns can be caused by four main external sources:

  • Thermal Burns – at temperatures of greater than 111 degrees Fahrenheit, proteins within skin begin to lose their shape and break down, leading to cell and tissue damage. Thermal burns often result from fire or hot liquids.
  • Chemical Burns – exposure to chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid or common household substances like bleach or toilet  bowl cleaner can burn the skin.
  • Electrical Burns – exposure to electricity via either electrical cords and outlets or lightning can cause burns. Most of the damage from this type of burn can actually be internal.
  • Radiation Burns – long exposure to ultraviolet light, or from ionizing radiation such as x-rays, can cause the skin to burn. The most common instance of this is sunburn

There is a scale with four “degrees” of burns depending on the severity of the exposure. First degree burns are superficial burns that generally heal well within a week. These burns do not penetrate the epidermis (visible layer of skin). Second degree burns can take up to three weeks to heal and often do not leave scarring. These burns extend into the dermis (internal layers of skin). Third degree burns can take months to heal, if they do at all and extend throughout the entire dermis. Fourth degree burns are the most severe, extending past the dermis into muscles/bones/fat. Fourth degree burns often require amputation and can be fatal.

Burn Treatments

Burn treatments have been documented as far back as the ancient Egyptians using breast milk. Cave paintings and papyrus from 3,500 years ago show that honey and resin were used as treatments. Other treatments used throughout history include tea leaves, pig fat, vinegar, wine, and myrrh.

We’ve come a long way since then. The roots of modern burn treatment can be traced back to London in 1843, with the opening of the first hospital to treat burns. During World War I, disinfecting standards were established using sodium hypochlorite solutions, greatly reducing mortality rates. By World War II, skin grafting became a widespread procedure.

Severe burns can be treated with a number of different approaches combining to produce life-changing results. With the severe burns, it’s vital to keep the burned flesh from becoming infected. Cooling the burn with room temperature water in the early stages of the burn can help stop its spread. Topical antibiotics will help keep out infection. Intravenous fluids will help to keep the burn victim hydrated. Surgery to the wounds is also performed on the most severe of burns to close wounds and promote healing.

Burn Facts

  • Chemical burns account for less than 10% of all burns, but 30% of all burn-related deaths
  • More than 25,000 substances are known to cause chemical burns
  • There were 340,000 fatal burns worldwide in 2010
  • Burns are a top-15 cause of death in children worldwide
  • 70% of burns in the U.S. happen to males
  • 60% of burn fatalities occur in Southeast Asia
  • 1/3 of burns in India are the result of loose clothing catching on fire

Burn Victim Video Stories

Learn more about burns by watching our film: “Just Like You – Burns as Told by Three Children”.