Burns and scalds

Burns and scalds

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​A burn or scald means tissue damage caused by heat or a corrosive substance. The most common cause of scalds is hot water. The most important first aid measure is to cool the injured area. Small burns and scalds can be treated at home.

The longer the exposure and the hotter the source of injury, the more extensive the damage to the tissues and severe the burn. Burns and scalds are divided into categories depending on the degree of their severity and their extent is estimated on the basis of percentage of damaged skin of the total body surface area. Common causes of burns and scalds include hot objects, hot liquids and steam, open fire, electricity, chemicals or corrosive substances, or radiation (such as UV radiation from the sun).​

Symptoms

A first degree burn

The symptoms of a first degree burn include redness, swelling and pain on the skin. The skin has normal sensation and it feels dry. A superficial first degree burn heals in about a week.

A second degree burn

A second degree burn is a superficial burn in which the top layer of the skin is damaged and the subcutaneous tissue is excreting fluid, forming blisters on the skin.  A superficial second degree burn heals in about two weeks.

A third degree burn​​

​In a third degree burn the skin feels dry, hard and it has no sensation. The skin turns grey and pearlescent in colour or dark and charred. Other than minor first or second degree burns require usually the assessment of a medical professional and hospital treatment.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

In burn injuries, the possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by burning gases must also be taken into consideration. Inhaling burn fumes, for instance in a house fire, or by an open fire, firep​lace or wood-burning oven, may lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning include headache, lowered level of consciousness, drowsiness, nausea and redness in the face.

Carbon monoxide poisoning must always be treated in hospital​​.​​

Self-care

​First of all, further exposure to the source of heat must be prevented. Cool the burned or scalded area under cool or lukewarm running tap water, or in a bowl of water for 10–20 minutes. Do not use iced water as that might cause a frostbite. Cooling stops the injury from spreading into deeper tissues and reduces pain in the injured area. Do not pop any blisters as this may cause an infection.

After cooling the burned or scalded area, protect the burn injury from dirt and bacteria. If the area is exuding or it is blistered, you can cover the injured area with a clean bandage designed specifically for burn injuries, available at pharmacies.

At first, the injury may be exuding with fluid quite heavily, therefore the bandages should be changed daily.  The injuries should also be checked regularly for signs of a possible infection (i.e. hot to the touch, redness, swelling). Pain can be reduced with over-the-counter pain medication containing paracetamol, available at pharmacies. Once the skin heals, you can apply vitamin B cream or ointment on skin that has no blisters. Pharmacy staff will help you select the right product, if necessary. The injured area may feel sensitive to sunlight, heat, cold and rubbing for a long time.

When should you seek medical advice?

​You should seek medical advice, if​

  • the burn or scald is larger than the affected person's palm of the hand. 
  • an area, even if smaller than the affected person's palm of hand, is blistered.
  • the burn or scald is deeper than a second degree burn.
  • the injury is located in the area of hands or face.
  • the area of the burn or scald is infected (increased swelling, redness or feeling hot to the touch).
  • the injury does not heal by self-care or the symptoms get worse.
  • ​the affected person is elderly.

If the burn results from an electric shock or corrosive substance, if the victim breathed in hot steam or shows signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, s​eek medical attention immediately. 

More information

The producers of the instruction

​​​​​Emergency care professionals have produced the instruction in collaboration with Terveyskirjasto.​

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Updated  22.4.2021