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Burns: Types, Severity & Treatment

Burns: Types, Severity & Treatment
Christine Kijek, RN, BSN, WON

In the United States (US), over 1 million burn injuries occur each year. The most common burn injuries are the result of scalds from hot liquid and flame burns. Approximately 80% of these burns occur in the home and 70% of them occur in males. Burns in children younger than 5 years of age account for 20% of yearly burn injuries (Evans, 2016). Managing minor burns in the home fine but burns that cover large surface areas or significant burns that damage deep tissue should be evaluated and treated by a healthcare professional.

What are the different types of Burns?

Thermal Burns

Thermal burns include exposure to flame, scald from hot liquids and contact with hot surfaces. The degree or temperature and the length of time of contact determine the severity of the burn.

  • Flame Burns: Flame burns are the result of fire, often with clothing burning as well. This increases contact time. House fires are most common as a cause.
  • Scald Burns: Scald burns most often occur in the kitchen or bathroom of the home. Most common are hot water and/or grease spills.
  • Contact Burns: Contact burns most often affect the hands, face and upper body. Oven doors, wood-burning stoves, cookware, curling irons and machinery are common culprits.

Electrical Burns

Electrical burns are classified by category, high voltage, low voltage, lighting strikes and electric arc without passage current through the body. Most electrical burns are work-related and high voltage, usually occurring in men. Injuries in children are most often low voltage occurring in the home and related to home appliances, frayed electrical cords or placement of objects in an electrical outlet. Electrical injuries can cause cardiac arrhythmias which result in death.

Chemical Burns

Chemical burns generally progress after contact as the chemical continues to destroy healthy tissue. The severity of the burn is determined by:

  • Agent causing the burn (ie cleansers, drain cleaners, solvents and gasoline type chemicals)
  • How long it is in contact with the skin
  • How concentrated the chemical is
  • The amount of the chemical that comes in contact with the skin
  • How the product works (mechanism of action)

It is difficult to determine the extent of damage initially. It may appear superficial at first but the chemical continues to breakdown the skin, often effecting much deeper levels. Tissue damage begins with contact and continues until the agent is removed from the skin by irrigation.

As in flame injuries, inhalation of chemicals and toxic material can cause lower airway damage. Chemical inhalation causes sloughing of the lining, secretion of mucus, inflammation, collapsing of the small air sacs in the lungs and obstruction of the airway.

Severity of the Burn Wound

This is based on the depth of the wound, the number of cells damaged. The degree of burns has changed from first, second, third and fourth degree to:

  • First degree: Superficial - epidermis (outer skin)
  • Second degree: Superficial partial-thickness - includes the dermis (nerve endings and hair follicles reside here)
  • Third degree: Deep partial-thickness - sweat glands, fatty tissue and blood vessels
  • Fourth degree: Full-thickness - down to the bone

Treatment and Management of Burn Wounds

Wound care management is planned based on the location, severity, and depth of the injury. The patient should be medicated for pain prior to any treatment of burn wounds. Factors that play a role in the plan of care are:

  • Age
  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • The availability and willingness of family to participate in daily care needed


Hydrotherapy can be used for debridement, tub immersion or shower. If the wound involves a joint, this is the best time to provide range of motion (ROM) exercises.

Topical Antimicrobial Agents

Topical antimicrobial agents are typically used in deep burns that are not excised or closed surgically to keep the risk of infection low. These antimicrobial agents are not usually indicated for superficial wounds or donor sites of skin or meshed skin grafts. The most commonly used antimicrobial for burns is silver sulfadiazine. This agent does not cause pain with application and requires a prescription.

Antimicrobial Dressing

Antimicrobial dressing with silver (Ag) may be used. Mepilex Border Ag Antimicrobial Foam Dressing is a good choice for high draining burn wounds. It protects the surrounding skin from excess moisture or drainage from the wound and does not cause pain with application or removal.

One option for superficial burns is Hydrofera Blue. It manages wound drainage, helps remove debris from the wound and helps to manage bacterial growth within the wound bed. Calcium alginate dressing such as Algisite, can be used on superficial and partial-thickness wounds but cannot be used on deep-partial-thickness or full-thickness burns. Algisite is available with silver as well. Burns that affect the epidermis (superficial) only may be dressed with a transparent film dressing such as Tegaderm or Opsite and left in place for 5-7 days.

Topical Ointments

Topical ointments for minor burns include Bacitracin or Neosporin. These ointments can be applied multiple times a day and are perfect for burns on the face or perineal areas. They provide a moist environment for healing while offering antimicrobial properties.


Cellular or Tissue-Based Products

Cellular or tissue-based products are used as a temporary skin substitute in partial-thickness burns. This product will help maintain an infection free wound. The nerves in the wound are covered which helps decrease pain. They also reduce frequency of dressing changes, also helping to minimize pain. Extracellular matrix scaffolding or skin replacement promotes rapid skin production which decreases scar formation. Skin grafting is the best choice if the burn victim has undamaged skin available. If not, Allograft is skin harvested from donors. Xenograft is a split-thickness pigskin and is used n partial-thickness burns that do not require skin grafting.

Outlook for people with Burns Injuries

Severe burn injuries require a multidisciplinary approach to management. Burn victims need support on many levels. Pain and anxiety create stress which can delay wound healing. Along with medications to help manage pain and anxiety, non-medication measures are quite helpful. These include:

  • Relaxation techniques
  • Coping strategies
  • Distraction
  • Mediation
  • Presence of significant others for emotional support

Children suffering burn injuries have special needs but include the same physical support adults require. Children may suffer from separation anxiety while hospitalized. They develop fear of treatments because of repeated painful procedures and dressing changes. Their developmental stages ay regress secondary to these fears. Behavioral changes such as anger, anxiety and agitation are more common in children. Family should be present with the child during treatments and wound care. It is recommended a parent be present during the recovery phase in the hospital setting, offering support and comfort. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not uncommon the child with burn injuries. Treatment of PTSD should be started at the earliest signs for best outcomes.


Author Profile: Christine Kijek, Registered Colorectal Nurse

Christine Kijek

Christine Kijek is a colorectal nurse at Danbury Hospital in Danbury, CT. She has a wealth of knowledge in this field as well as personal experience. HPFY is thrilled that she has been an active participant in the Ostomy Support Group. She has experience working as a coordinator for cancer patients, post-operative care, and home health care for disabled children and adults. And guess what! Christine is also the recipient of the Nurse Exemplar Award. Christine lives in Bethel, CT with her husband Ed. Her children are married and live nearby. She has 4 grandchildren and is known as GiGi. Christine enjoys riding motorcycles and spends many hours gardening. She can often be found onboard a Carnival Cruise ship lounging by the pool.


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HPFY Christine Kijek, RN, BSN, WON

Christine Kijek, RN, BSN, WON

LinkedIn Profile Christine Kijek is a registered nurse with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. She has completed courses for wound and ostomy specialty and has 20 years of experience. She has ...

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