As the largest organ in the human body, our skins tick off a full roster of important functions. It allows us to move freely, protects us against both hot and cold extremes of temperature, manufactures vitamin D for later conversion into calcium for our bones, and mediates sensory experiences to our brains courtesy of the many nerves that are present there. Life in the Land Down Under necessitates that we take good care of our skin, as it helps us cope against problems like the punishing heat. To this end, one threat to the skin that we’d all do well to watch out for is burn injuries.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) thorough definition of a burn injury is as follows: “A burn injury of the skin occurs when some or all the different layers of cells in the skin are destroyed by a hot liquid (scalds), a hot solid (contact burns), or a flame (flame burns). Injuries of the skin and other tissues due to ultraviolet/infrared radiation, radioactivity, electricity, or chemicals are also considered to be burns.” A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) notes that while burns constitute only 1% of all hospitalisations for injury, such cases are often very grave, and they require long periods of admission and numerous re-admissions. The same report cited 5,430 cases of hospitalisation from burn injury from 2013 to 2014, with 45% of the said cases being caused by contact from hot drinks, hot food, and sizzling cooking oil.
Burn injuries can be classified by severity into 4 different types, from the first-degree to the fourth degree. Typical symptoms of a burn include red, peeling, swelling, blistered, or charred skin. Some burns can be extremely painful, but others may not register as much pain because of the consequent nerve damage. We’re vulnerable to burn injuries on several everyday occasions, and as such, when you enrol in a first aid training course in Sydney or in your locality, learning how to treat burns will be a highlight of the agenda.
What differentiates first-degree burn from a third-degree burn, what are the common types of burn injury, and what recourse of action should you take if someone in your vicinity has been burned? Here’s a quick primer on dealing with burns that will hopefully inspire quick and timely intervention.
From the First to the Fourth Degree: Assessing Burns for Severity
Our skins comprise three layers, which are called the epidermis (outermost layer), the dermis (middle layer), and the subcutis (innermost layer). Burn injuries are thus classified according to which layers of the skin are affected, or how deeply the burn was able to damage your skin. The classifications are:
- First-degree burn. This is a mild type of burn that only affects the epidermis, or the outer layer of your skin. One example of a first-degree burn is mild sunburn, which may redden your skin and make it painful and itchy but ultimately does not deal you any long-term harm. The best way to protect your skin from this type of burn is applying sunscreen and wearing protective clothing.
- Second-degree burn. A second-degree burn occurs when both the epidermis and the dermis, the outermost and middle layers of your skin, are affected. These burns can be painful and can make your skin appear red, swollen, and blistered. Second-degree burns can be further classified into superficial second-degree burns (only part of the dermis is damaged and you will not come away with scarring) and deep partial thickness burns (which may leave scars or permanent skin discolouration).
- Third–degree burn. Third degree burns, also referred to as full thickness burns, occur when the injury destroys the two full layers of the epidermis and the dermis. Such a burn can char the skin, turn it a white and waxy colour, or give it a leathery texture. It will not immediately cause pain on behalf of the sufferer, as their nerve endings may already be damaged by this time.
- Fourth-degree burn. This is the most severe type of burn injury in which all the layers of the skin, from the epidermis to the subcutis, are damaged. A burn of such strength might have also penetrated the bones, muscles, and tendons, and thus requires intensive medical care.
A Beginner’s Guide to Treating Burns
Even before you develop a full-fledged first aider’s mentality, you can step up and help treat a burn. For mild burn injuries (which can take up to two weeks to heal completely), the best approach would be to reduce pain, close off possibilities for infection, and help the skin heal faster. Some approaches that you can apply for first- to second-degree burns that are less than three inches in diameter are:
- Apply proper home remedies to cool the skin. Good implements that can cool the burned skin without causing additional complication are cold water, cold compress, antibiotic ointment, aloe vera, or honey. You should stay away products such as butter or coconut oil, egg whites, or toothpaste—all of which could irritate the burn further and cultivate harmful bacteria on the skin.
- Usher the victim away from the site of stress and into a state of recovery. Mitigate the victim’s exposure to the site of the injury, such as the front of a stove top. Move them to a cooler, more relaxing environment and keep them comfortable. If they express that they’re in pain, you can also administer an over-the-counter painkiller such as ibuprofen or naproxen.
- Warn the victim not to touch swelling skin or blisters. Ask that the victim resist touching their skin, trying to peel off bits of clothing or debris that’s stuck to the skin, or popping blisters. The said areas should be looked over by a medical professional as soon as possible; if they’re fiddled with, it might cause further damage or infection.
On the other hand, for more severe burn injuries, you should immediately seek out medical assistance. Third- to fourth-degree burns can bring about the additional risks of shock, infection, blood loss, and other health complications. Dial Triple Zero (000) or take the victim to the emergency room in the following cases:
- If the injury can be judged as a third- to fourth-degree burn;
- If the burn affects a widespread area that is more than three inches in diameter;
- If the burn is in a sensitive part of the body, which includes the face, hands, buttocks, or groin;
- If the burn wound has become painful or smelly to behold;
- If the victim is cultivating a high body temperature because of the burn;
- If the victim has not had a tetanus shot in more than five years.
The idea of suffering a burn injury, or watching someone close to you be burned, likely conjures feelings of fright. The sight of burned skin might summon as visceral a reaction as seeing blood. But with a calm head on your shoulders and a focused approach to the problem, you can help whoever is aggrieved by the burn well along their way to recovery.
*This article is for informational purposes only and does constitute, replace, or qualify as RPL for our first aid training courses.