Burns are a common injury at home and in the workplace. Knowing how to recognise the seriousness of a burn and provide appropriate first aid is something everyone should know, especially if you work in a high risk workplace or supervise children.
Burns cause damage to the skin cells and can range from mild and superficial to very serious and even life threatening. Some burns can be treated at home while others require emergency medical help or surgery to prevent complications.
Burns can be caused by a range of sources including:
- Hot liquid and steam (these burns are known as scalds)
- Hot surfaces (for example a stovetop or a hot cooking pot)
- Radiation (including sunburn from UV radiation)
- Friction (when your skin rubs against a surface)
Burns are categorised according to the severity of the injury. The degree of damage does not necessarily correlate with the cause of the burn. For example, scalding by hot water or steam can cause first degree burns, as well as deeper, more serious burns.
First degree burns, also known as superficial burns, are mild burns that affect the top layer of skin only. The skin around the burn site may look red and feel painful, but there will be no blistering. As the skin heals there may be some peeling at the burn site.
First degree burns usually heal within a few weeks and may be treated at home without seeking medical advice. However, if the burn is larger than a 20c coin or if it affects the hands, feet, groin or face, you should consult a doctor.
Second degree burns, also known as partial thickness burns, affect the top layer of skin as well as the underlying dermis. There may be some blistering, swelling and wetness.
- Superficial second degree burns affect part of your dermis and may heal without scarring.
- Deep second degree burns affect more of your dermis and may permanently change the colour or texture of your skin.
As the wound heals, a scab-like tissue may form over the wound site. The more severe the blistering, the longer the wound will take to heal. It is important that the wound is dressed properly to prevent infection.
Serious second degree burns may require skin grafting which involves taking skin from another area of the body and moving it to the burn site.
Third degree burns, also known as full thickness burns, cause serious damage to both layers of your skin and may also impact the underlying muscle and nervous tissue.
The burn site may appear black, brown or white. You may not feel pain at the burn site due to damaged nerve endings, but the surrounding areas of skin may feel painful.
Emergency medical help should be called to treat third degree burns as they can cause complications if left untreated. This type of wound typically heals with scarring and surgery may be needed.
You can follow these first aid steps for most burns. If you work in a workplace exposed to hazardous chemicals or electrical wiring, it’s important to know the relevant safety procedures for the risks you face.
Check the surroundings for danger and move the person so they don’t get injured further. For example, move them away from a hot surface or put out flames on their clothes using a wet blanket.
Remove any clothing or jewellery from around the burn site, unless it is stuck to the wound.
For chemical burns, remove contaminated clothing, but be careful not to come in contact with the chemical yourself.
The first treatment for most burns is to run the affected area under cool water for at least 20 minutes. It’s important to do this as quickly as possible.
Do not use ice or ointments. Do not put children into a bath of cold water.
If the wound is deep or spread over a large area of the person’s body, call 000 for emergency medical help.
For superficial wounds that affect a large area or are located on the face, hands, feet or groin, you should seek medical advice.
Use a non-adherent, sterile dressing over the wound and then wind a bandage or plastic wrap around the affected area.
Adhesive dressings and tape should be avoided as it may cause further damage to the skin tissue.
Do not use ointments, creams, butter or other home remedies for burns unless advised by a professional. These may need to be removed by medical staff later on, slowing down the treatment.
It’s important to have a fully stocked first aid kit at home, school and the workplace to deal with any burn emergencies that arise. First aid kits can be restocked with wholesale medical supplies and should be regularly checked to ensure the contents are current.
Burns in children are quite common and the best protection is prevention.
- Keep young children away from kitchen ovens and stoves
- Always supervise them around electrical devices and open flames
- Test bath water before placing children in it
- Ensure the hot water system is set at an appropriate temperature
It is important that schools are equipped with the right first aid equipment to deal with burn emergencies. School first aid kits should contain a range of gauzes and bandages, burn gel, a cool compress and Nitrile gloves to treat burns.