Wound Care 101 Series: Burn Care

No matter the severity of trauma, burn injuries can be some of the most painful and difficult wounds to manage. Commonly, burns happen when the skin comes in contact or is overexposed to excessively hot water, materials, equipment, or the sun; however, burn wounds resulting from radiation, contact with flames or intense heat, chemicals, or electrical currents and even smoke inhalation can lead to more significant injury. A consistent wound care regimen in conjunction with quality burn care supplies will facilitate a successful recovery.  

Understanding First, Second & Third Degree Burns

The difference between the three main types of burns depends on the severity of skin damage. As a result, higher degree burns sustain the most damage. First-degree wounds are superficial skin injuries that turn red without blisters. Limited to the epidermal layer of skin, they cause minimal swelling and pain. Some dryness and flakiness occur before they heal without scarring. Second-degree wounds cause more severe damage to the outer layer of skin, resulting in extreme pain, redness, and blistering. If blisters break, these wounds can form scabs from the oozing pus, but they usually heal without scarring. Since third-degree burns damage every layer of skin, they are the most severe type of burn because they can cause extensive and permanent damage to your body; conversely, third-degree wounds may not be painful due to the nerve damage they can cause.

Burn Care 101

For minor burn wounds, place a cool, wet compress on the burned skin or pour cool water over it until the pain subsides. Reduce swelling by removing bracelets and other tight-fitting items from the burn wound area. Avoid bursting any blisters because they contain infection-fighting fluids. You should have some antibiotic burn ointment available in case one breaks. Next, prevent drying by applying a burn cream to the cooled burn wound before dressing it with a loosely wrapped sterile gauze bandage.

For major burn wounds, call 911 or contact emergency medical help as soon as you have the burn victim in a safe place away from the burn source. While waiting for emergency assistance, check the burn victim’s breathing to determine whether you need to administer CPR. Next, remove all restrictive items, cover the wound with a cool damp cloth or bandage and elevate the burn-injured area. 

Best Ointments for Burn Wounds

Topical ointments with zinc oxide, calamine, and lanolin relieve burns and wounds. Besides forming a barrier, the moisture in these ointments soothes itching and irritation. If the infection is a concern, an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment with Bacitracin, Neomycin, and Polymyxin B will do the job. Severe burns risk dangerous infections like antibiotic-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staph aureus (MRSA). As such, a prescription ointment with Bactroban (mupirocin) may be necessary.

Using Ice to Cool a Burn

Although it may seem like a good idea, you should never put ice or ice-cold water to a burn because freezing applications can cause more damage to the skin or frostbite. In addition, burns can expose the fragile underlying tissue. As a result, prolonged exposure to ice can cause damage to this tissue. Placing ice on the exposed dermis or subcutaneous tissue from second and third-degree burns can lower the burn victim’s body temperature and put them at risk of dangerous complications. The best treatment option is to place the burn wound under cool running water for a few minutes or cover it with a cool sterile cloth before applying any burn care supplies. 

Healing Time

Burn healing times depend on the severity of the burn and the quality of care to the healing wound. Minor burns usually heal within 3 to 5 days, while deep burns can take weeks or months to mend. To help prevent infection, you should regularly clean and change the burn wound dressing. Also, even if it feels stiff or tight, you can avoid a loss of range of motion and function by moving the burned area daily. 

Managing Common Burns

Caring for a Burnt Finger

A burnt finger can be extremely painful because your fingertips have many nerve endings. Once you’ve cooled down the burn, you can ease the pain from a 1st-degree finger burn with aloe vera-based lotion, followed by a sterile bandage with a non-stick pad. Second-degree burnt fingers require antibiotic ointment with bandaging. With third-degree finger burns, you need to clean and debride (getting rid of dead skin) the fingers with a dermal wound cleanser and wash them before adding an antibiotic cream or any other burn wound products. Any further applications for third-degree finger burns require attention from a trained medical professional. 

How to Manage a Hot Water Burn 

Boiling water burns typically cause intense and instantaneous pain. Also, if the scalding hot water stays on the skin or engulfs a person’s body, it can cause extensive and long-lasting damage. This possibility is why you should separate yourself from the burn source as quickly as possible. First, remove any clothing saturated in hot water unless it fuses to your skin. Then, lower your skin temperature by showering it with cold water for around 10 minutes, but don’t put any oils or any other wound care products on the burn area. You should seek professional medical care if the hot water burn covers a large portion of your body, continues to cause intense pain, or doesn’t hurt at all despite apparent damage.