Burns are injuries to tissue that result from heat, electricity, radiation, or chemicals.
Burns cause varying degrees of pain, blisters, swelling, and skin loss.
Deep, extensive burns can cause serious complications, such as shock and severe infections.
Small, shallow burns may need only to be kept clean and to have an antibiotic cream applied.
People with deep or extensive burns may require intravenous fluids, surgery, and rehabilitation, often at a burn center.
Burns are usually caused by heat (thermal burns), such as fire, steam, tar, or hot liquids. Burns caused by chemicals are similar to thermal burns, whereas burns caused by radiation, sunlight, and electricity differ significantly. Events associated with a burn, such as jumping from a burning building, being struck by debris, or being in a motor vehicle crash, may cause other injuries.
Thermal and chemical burns usually occur because heat or chemicals contact part of the body’s surface, most often the skin. Thus, the skin usually sustains most of the damage. However, severe surface burns may penetrate to deeper body structures, such as fat, muscle, or bone.
When tissues are burned, fluid leaks into them from the blood vessels, causing swelling. In addition, damaged skin and other body surfaces are easily infected because they can no longer act as a barrier against invading microorganisms.
More than 2 million people in the United States require treatment for burns each year, and between 3,000 and 4,000 die of severe burns. Older people and young children are particularly vulnerable. When children and elderly people are burned, doctors also consider the possibility that the person was abused.