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Burn Treatment and Prevention

Burns are one of the most common household injuries, so knowing how to treat burns and when to call for medical assistance is important.

Burn Classifications
Burns fall into three classifications: first-, second-, and third-degree burns. First-degree burns remain on the surface of the skin and tend to appear red. Sunburns are usually first-degree burns. Although first-degree burns can cause great pain, they seldom result in lasting problems or require medical attention.

Second-degree burns probe deeper into the skin and result in blistering or splitting of the skins layers. Very severe sunburns and scalding are common instances of second-degree burns. Like first-degree burns, second-degree burns rarely cause lasting problems or scarring, but the pain can be intense. These burns can be treated at home if they don't cover a large area on the body (larger than the patients hand).

Third-degree burns destroy all layers of the skin and extend into deeper tissues. These burns are actually painless because the nerve endings have been destroyed. Third-degree burns result in scarring, infection, and fluid loss, and should be seen by a doctor immediately. Skin grafts are often needed to repair these deep burns.

Home Treatment
To treat a burn at home, apply cold water or compress immediately. The cold water or ice eases the pain and reduces the amount of skin damage. Apply the cold for at least five minutes. You can keep cold on the burn for up to an hour to ease the pain, but don't go longer than an hour because frostbite could occur. If pain subsists, use a pain reliever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen (Tylenol).

If the burn has caused blisters, be careful to avoid breaking or puncturing them. Blisters often break on their own, and when they do, allow the overlying skin to remain on the blister. It acts as a wet dressing, keeping the new skin clean and protecting it as it toughens up.

Don't use anesthetic creams or sprays; they may actually slow healing. Antibiotic creams, such as Bacitracin and Neosporin, neither help nor hinder healing. Its best to keep the burn and blisters clean and allow them to heal on their own.

Chemical Burns
Chemical substances, such as lye and acids, can cause serious burns when in contact with bare skin. Brush any dry chemical substance off the skin and remove contaminated clothing. Wash the burn with large amounts of water and soap. Call the local poison control; there may be an antidote for the substance that caused the burn. If the patient seems to be having trouble breathing, take him or her to the emergency room, as this could indicate a lung injury from inhalation of caustic fumes.

Electrical Burns
Electrical burns often result from small children playing with electrical outlets. If an electrical burn occurs, immediately disconnect the power source and pull the victim away from the source using a dry, non-metallic object such as a broom, rope, chair, or cushion. Don't use your bare hands. Begin CPR if the person isn't breathing. All electrical burns should be seen by a physician, so take the victim to the emergency room immediately.

Prevention is always the best medicine, and there are many things you can do to avoid burns in your home. Spend an evening with your family explaining how to avoid burns. Be sure to mention the following:

  • Keep matches out of reach of children and babies.
  • Don't allow garbage to accumulate.
  • If you're near a fireplace or stove, don't wear baggy clothing or long sleeves, which could catch fire.
  • Check electrical cords regularly for loose connections or worn covers.
  • Keep space heaters out of reach of children, and make sure they turn off automatically if toppled or placed against something else.
  • Put fire extinguishers in areas where fire risk is greatest: kitchens, furnace room, near a fireplace or wood stove.
  • Check smoke detectors regularly.
  • Hold fire drills.
  • Keep caustic chemicals in safe containers and away from children.
  • Use sunscreen religiously.
  • Don't allow anyone to smoke in bed.

Ensuring that your home is safe will dramatically decrease your risk for burns. Even after you teach your family about burn prevention, make sure they know how to treat a burn. You can't be too prepared.