Burn Injuries: Conditions & Common Causes

Burn injuries result from a number of different causes and can range from minor to life threatening. In the United States, over 1 million burn injuries require medical attention, 45,000 require hospitalization and nearly 4,500 people die each year from burn injuries, according to the American Burn Association.

A burn injury is defined as damage to the skin or other organ from contact with heat, radiation, electricity or chemicals.

Severity or burn depth: The severity of burn injuries are classified by the depth of the burn in three different degrees: first, second, and third.

  • First degree burns cause minor tissue damage only to the outer skin layer. The burn is painful, leaving the skin reddish and dry with little swelling.
  • Second degree burns damage the first two layers of skin. There is severe pain and blistering (bubbling). The skin is moist, red, and swollen with minimal scarring.
  • Third degree burns damage all layers of skin and may also damage fat, muscle and bone tissue. The damaged skin often is left depressed, charred, and leathery. Initially, there may be little pain due to the destruction of nerve endings.

First and second degree burns often heal without much damage and can often be treated at home. Third degree burns cause much greater problems and should receive medical attention. Burns affecting 10% or more of a child’s body or 15-20% of an adult’s body are major injuries and often require extensive skin grafting, constructive surgery, and long periods of rehabilitation and hospitalization.

Types of injuries: Severe burns may result in:

  • Dehydration
  • Death, most often caused by infection
  • Amputated limbs
  • Skin grafts, due to the damaged skin’s inability to correctly grow
  • Skin disfigurement and scarring requiring reconstructive surgery
  • Loss of certain physical capabilities, such as range of motion limitations and a permanent sensation of tightness due to scarring and the skin’s loss of elasticity
  • Loss of the sense of touch
  • Loss of ability to perspire
  • Possible effects on every system of the body when there is deep damage to muscles and other organs
  • Changes in the individual’s physical appearance and self-esteem

Causes: Burn injuries fall into four categories with the most common causes being, scalding hot and flammable liquids and fires.

  • Thermal/contract burns – occur when the body comes into contact with hot items, such as hot metals, scalding liquids, steam and flames.
  • Radiation (ultraviolet) burns – are caused by prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun (sunburns), as well as tanning booths or beds.
  • Chemical burns – result from skin or eye contact with strong acids (i.e., sulfuric acid) and bases, such as alkaloids.
  • Electrical burns – result from the electrical current flowing through the body.
  • Inhalation burns – result from breathing fumes or smoke during a fire