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Patient Education - Acute Burns

Patient Education - Acute Burns

Patient Education - Acute Burns


An acute burn is an injury that damages the skin and can be caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, or radiation. Every year in the United States, more than 500,000 people go to the emergency room because they have a burn. Out of those people, 10% of them need to be hospitalized. The severity of burns depends on how many layers of skin are damaged and how much of the body is affected.

Treatment and Prevention

Depending on the severity of the burn injury, treatment options vary and may include hospitalization, skin grafts, and medication. To help burns heal properly, keep the wound moist, change dressings as instructed, and avoid breaking blisters. If a burn is left untreated, complications can arise, including infection and scarring. To prevent burns, install fire alarms, learn how to use a fire extinguisher, cover electrical outlets, wear protective clothing when handling chemicals, and adjust the temperature on water heaters to no more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

When to contact your healthcare provider?

Seek medical attention for burns that are large, deep, involving the hands, face, genitals, or feet, on or around a joint or on a child under 5 years old or someone over 70 years old.

WHAT is an acute burn?

An acute burn is a skin injury that can result from a variety of agents or mechanisms and results in tissue damage and cell death. 

Burns can result in pain, redness, blistering, swelling, and/or scarring. The severity of burns can vary based on depth, or how many layers of skin are damaged. Extent of the burn injury depends on how much of the body’s surface is covered in burn (Figure 1 and 2).

Fig. 1. Skin layers and classification of burn injury
Fig. 2. Classification of burn injury

WHAT causes an acute burn?

A burn is tissue damage caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, or radiation. The most common burns are caused by hot liquid or steam, fires, and flammable liquids and gases (Figure 3).

Fig. 3. Causes of acute burn

WHAT do I do if I get burned?

If you experience a burn injury: 

  • Remove all clothing, diapers, jewelry, and metal from the burnt area. 
  • Run the area of the burn under cold water for at least three to five minutes 
  • Don’t apply ointments, creams, sprays, or other home remedies

Seek medical assistance for burns that are:
  • Large (greater than the size of an orange) 
  • Deep (second or third degree)
  • Involving the hands, face, genitals, or feet
  • On or around a joint 
  • On a child under 5 years old or someone over 70 years old

HOW does a clinician treat a burn?

Your healthcare provider will examine the burn to determine the degree or severity. Those with more severe burns may need to be transferred to a burn center, where the facilities and clinicians specialize in burn treatment. 

For first and second degree burns, your clinician may recommend an ointment or cream to avoid infection, dressings to keep the wound moist, as well as an over-the-counter pain medication to avoid discomfort. 

For more severe burns, treatment options vary, but may include: 

  • Admission to a hospital or burn facility
  • Extra fluids to prevent shock and dehydration 
  • Surgery such as debridement and skin grafts, where the damaged skin is removed and replaced with healthy skin from another part of the body

HOW do I care for my burn at home?

To help your burns heal properly, be sure to:

  • Change your dressings as instructed by your clinician  
  • Keep the wound moist: apply moisturizers to promote swift healing
  • Avoid infection by keeping the area clean and applying antibiotic ointments if instructed by your clinician
  • Do not break blisters: Small, clear, fluid filled blisters should be left alone, and large blisters and those with unclear and/or bloody fluid should be evaluated by a clinician

WHEN should I contact my healthcare provider?

Don’t wait or hesitate to contact if you experience signs of infection, including: oozing from the wound, increased pain, redness and swelling.

If you have a minor burn injury that can be treated at home, consult your healthcare provider if you have a blister that is large or if the injury doesn’t improve within two weeks.  

If a burn injury is left untreated, complications can arise including infection and scarring. Extensive burn areas or deep burns can lead to dehydration, shock, or more serious complications.

HOW can I prevent a burn?

General Fire Safety:

  • Install fire alarms in your home and check them monthly 
  • Learn how and when to use a fire extinguisher
  • Think about how you and your family would get out of your home if there were a fire, and create a plan 

Preventing other types of burns: 

  • Put covers on all electrical outlets a child can reach 
  • Throw away electrical cords that are frayed or damaged 
  • Wear gloves and other protective clothing when you handle chemicals 
  • Set the temperature on your water heater to no more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or use the “low-medium” setting

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NOTE: This is a controlled document. This document is not a substitute for proper training, experience, and exercising of professional judgment. While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the contents, neither the authors nor the Wound Reference, Inc. give any guarantee as to the accuracy of the information contained in them nor accept any liability, with respect to loss, damage, injury or expense arising from any such errors or omissions in the contents of the work.
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