The UVA Hand Center Close Window
Library Search Go Advanced Search
Español (Inicio)

HealthSheets™

 

Burns

Burns are injuries to tissue that can result from heat, electricity, radiation, or chemicals.  They occur in different degrees and can cause blisters, pain, or more serious complications such as skin loss, shock, infection, or death. 

When tissues are burned, fluid from the blood vessels seeps into the surrounding areas.  This makes the surrounding tissue more susceptible to infection. 

Anatomy

The skin is made up of three layers:  the epidermis is the outer layer of skin; the dermis is made up of collagen and elastic fibers where nerves, blood vessels, sweat glands, and hair follicles live; and the hypodermis (subcutaneous tissue) where larger blood vessels and nerves reside.  It is the subcutaneous tissue that has the most to do with temperature regulation. 

Types of Burns

Burns are classified by depth and severity of the tissue damage.

A first degree burn only affects the top layer of skin (epidermis).  Sunburns are often classified as first degree burns.  The symptoms include mild swelling and pain or tenderness.

A second degree burn (partial thickness burns) goes deeper into the second layer of skin (the dermis).  Symptoms include pain, swelling, and blistering of the skin.

A third degree burn involves all three layers of the skin and is also called a full-thickness burn.  These burns severely damage the nerves and blood vessels.  These burns are usually not painful because the nerves have been deystroyed.

Treament

For minor burns, your doctor may recommend a special antibiotic ointment to put on the burn followed by a light dressing.  This will help prevent infection.  It is best to keep the extremity elevated to reduce swelling.  For more severe deeper burns a skin graft may be necessary.  A skin graft  replaces the skin that will not heal or it may be used to cover the skin until it heals.  The skin is taken from an unburned place on your body (autograft), a dead person (allograft), or from an animal (xenograft).  Burned skin can be replaced within several days from the injury.  Because of the fluid shifts that occur with burns, large amounts of IV fluids will be given.  After a skin graft, therapy will be recommended to prevent immobility caused by scarring.  When not exercising your doctor will likely recommend splinting to prevent scarring and contractures.

Healing

First and some second degree burns usually heal within days or weeks.  Deeper second degree burns and small third degree burns take many weeks to heal.  They typicaly require a skin graft.  Severe third degree burns involving 90% or more of the body are usually fatal.