Burn Degrees and When to See a Doctor

Wounds due to excessive heat exposure, direct contact with a hot object, or contact with chemical agents require immediate attention and proper care. Read on to learn more about burn degrees and when to see a doctor after you or a loved one sustains a burn injury.

Degrees of Burn Injuries

Physicians determine burn levels by how far the heat penetrates into your skin. Below are the degrees used to categorize burn injuries:

First-Degree Burns

First-degree burns come from minor heat exposure that affects only the outer layer of your skin. A first-degree burn typically causes redness and irritation as in a mild sunburn. You may also experience some discomfort and swelling in the affected areas.

Second-Degree Burns

Second-degree or partial thickness burns cause blistering, swelling, and peeling skin from more intense heat exposure. Often caused by contact with boiling water, hot wax or oil, or prolonged sun exposure, second-degree burns cause pain and risk of infection if blisters aren’t treated correctly.

Third-Degree Burns

Third-degree or all-thickness burns penetrate all skin layers and may even reach nerves, causing the victim to lose feeling in the affected area. These severe burns are often caused by scalding liquid, chemicals, and fire. In a third-degree burn, the area may appear charred or white.

Fourth-Degree and Above

A fourth-degree or higher burn reaches all skin layers to fat, muscle, and sometimes even bone. Like a third-degree burn, the burn victim may first experience a numbing sensation because the heat damage penetrates the nerves and beyond. Usually caused by ovens or stoves, open flames, and chemical exposure, fourth-degree or higher burns cause serious physical injury.

How to Tell What Type of Burn You Have

To determine the severity of a burn, study the affected area and note your symptoms. A minor burn causes only discomfort and redness. If you see blisters forming, you’re likely to experience a more severe burn. High-level burns affect the appearance of the skin, causing a charred look or the absence of color in the burn location. If a burn covers a large area of the skin, regardless of the degree, the injury requires attention from a medical professional.

When You Should See a Physician for a Burn

Whenever you experience a burn with more severe symptoms than redness and discomfort, you may need to see a physician for evaluation. If a burn is located on the face, palms, soles of your feet, or a tender area of skin like the inner thigh, you should consult with a medical professional.

Likewise, if you experience a burn on major joints like your knee or wrist, or in the groin or buttocks, you also need to see a physician to assess healing treatments since these areas may be more prone to infection. As mentioned before, if a burn covers a large area of your body (about three times the size of your palm), visit a health care provider immediately.

In the event of chemical or electrical burns, you should always consult with a physician. Electrical burns may not appear to make a big impact on the surface but may penetrate deeper through the electrical current, affecting the nerves or inner layers of skin. Chemical burns are complex and different substances may require specific treatments that a health care professional can better determine.

How To Respond to a Burn Injury

The first step to treating a burn is to extinguish the heat source and move to a safe place. Poor cool water gently over the affected area instead of putting ice on the burn, as it can exacerbate the injury or cause long-term effects. Chemical burns require more water to cleanse the affected area from irritating substances. Keep the area dry and clean and watch for signs of infection. If you see an indication of bacterial infection at the burn site, seek medical attention.

In cases of minor sunburn or first-degree burns from a hot object, applying aloe vera gel or a similar burn ointment can help to relieve some of the irritation and swelling. If the skin begins to blister, apply antibiotic ointment to the surface, taking care to keep the area clean and dry when not coated with cream. Use clean, dry gauze to cover first or second-degree burns.

Tips To Avoid Burn Injuries

Follow these tips to avoid burns:

Stay Safe in the Kitchen

Kitchens pose a big threat for burn injuries, especially around the holidays. To avoid burns in the kitchen, follow these tips:

Keep Kids Safe from Burns

Children risk burn injuries from simply not understanding the dangers of extreme heat or dangerously hot environments. Young children also need special care in the sun because of their thin and delicate skin. Use these tips to keep your kids safe from burns:

Avoid Outdoor Burns

Aside from keeping your skin safe from sun exposure, outdoor burn risks include machinery, grills, fire pits and fireworks. Consider these safety ideas:

At The Hand and Wrist Institute, we offer the best care for injuries, conditions, and trauma involving the fingers, hands, wrist, and arm. Contact us at one of our locations to consult with our expert physicians. We’re here to determine the best care to heal and rehabilitate injuries to this essential body area.

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Dr. John Knight
Dr. John Knight

Dr. Knight is a renowned hand, wrist and upper extremity surgeon with over 25 years of experience. Dr. Knight is a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon and Fellowship trained. Dr Knight has appeared on CNN, The Doctors TV, Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Oxygen network and more.