Burns are tissue injuries caused by direct contact with heat, such as fire, sunlight, steam, boiling fluids, heated objects, electricity, lightning, and radiation. Burns may cause a variety of problems ranging from minor discomfort to life-threatening conditions.

What Is a Burn?

The skin is the protective external surface of the body. Its outer layer, the epidermis, comprises several layers of epithelial *

How Are Burns Classified?

Burns are categorized by the degree of severity.

First-Degree Burns (Superficial)

These burns are the least severe. They affect only the top layer of skin, the epidermis, which turns red at the burn site and causes pain when it is touched. Small blisters and mild swelling sometimes accompany first-degree burns, but usually the blisters heal rapidly and the swelling recedes on its own.

Second-Degree Burns (Partial Thickness)

These burns affect both the dermis and the epidermis. They often cause pain, fever, swelling, chills, and blisters, which may be reddish or whitish in color. Severe sunburns often are second-degree burns, and a person with such a burn should consult a doctor about it.

A first-degree burn affects only the top layer of skin (the epidermis). A second-degree burn affects the epidermis and the dermis.

A first-degree burn affects only the top layer of skin (the epidermis). A seconddegree burn affects the epidermis and the dermis. A third-degree burn is the most serious as it affects deeper layers of tissue, including nerves, sweat glands, fat, and hair follicles.
Illustration by Electronic Illustrators Group. © 2016 Cengage Learning®.
Did You Know?

According to the American Burn Association, 500,000 burn injuries require medical attention each year in the United States.

Among those individuals with burn injuries, the following applies:

  • Forty thousand burn victims require hospitalization, and 30,000 of these require treatment in special burn units.
  • Approximately 96 percent of people with burns survive.
  • Burns are among the top five causes of death in children between 1 and 14 years old.
  • Most burns occur in the home.
  • Boys under six years of age experience the most burn injuries.
  • Burn research and burn treatments greatly improve survival rates even among people with burns covering more than 90 percent of their bodies.
Third-Degree Burns (Full Thickness)

These are the most serious burns and they require immediate medical treatment. They affect all layers of skin and cause damage and cell death to numerous kinds of tis-sues, including nerves, sweat glands, fat, and hair follicles. The burn area may be free from pain if nerve endings have been damaged, but the area around the burn will often be extremely painful. The skin might appear white or be blackened and charred. Complications of third-degree burns can include:

Determining the Amount of Body Surface Burned

Special charts and apps are used to determine the amount of body surface that is burned. This is helpful when planning the type and amount of treatment needed for healing. Another factor used to determine the severity of the burn and type of treatment is the burn location. Burns are categorized as being minor, moderate, or severe:

How Do Doctors Treat Burns?

Treatment depends on how deeply the burn has injured skin tissue and underlying organs, the overall size of the burn, and the burn's location. For instance, a person with a sizable burn to the hands, feet, face, joints, groin, or buttocks should consult a doctor.

Mild burns usually heal on their own when the injured area is kept clean and dry. More serious burns often require treatment in a hospital, and the most severe of these cases may necessitate care in a hospital's specialized burn unit or in an intensive care unit.

Doctors often treat second- and third-degree burns with an antibiotic, such as a silver sulfadiazine cream. Externally applied, this agent kills a range of bacteria. These severe burns might require debridement * and skin graft surgery to replace the damaged tissue followed by a long healing period and physical therapy for the injured area. Doctors or burn technicians can debride skin with a special scalpel or lasers. Typically, skin for the graft is taken from an unburned area of the body, such as the stomach. The grafted area also can be covered with skin from a cadaver or animal.

How Are Burns Prevented?

The best defenses against burns are following fire safety rules, being aware, and preventing accidents. Additional actions to prevent burns in the home include:

Being informed about the sun's harmful rays helps to prevent sunburn. Actions to prevent sunburn include:

See also Skin Conditions: Overview • Trauma


The discomfort of sunburns can be eased with:

Some products can make sunburns worse. These include:

Severe sunburn should be treated by a doctor.


Books and Articles

Burns, Catherine E., Ardys M. Dunn, and Margaret A. Brady, eds. Pediatric Primary Care. 6th ed. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier, 2017.


Merck Manual: Consumer Version. “Burns.” http://www.merckmanuals.com/home/injuries-and-poisoning/burns/burns (accessed March 15, 2016).

National Institute of General Medical Sciences. “Burns Fact Sheet.” (accessed March 15, 2016).


American Burn Association. 311 S Wacker Dr., Suite 4150, Chicago, IL 60606. Telephone: 312-642-9260. Website: http://www.ameriburn.org (accessed March 15, 2016).

National Institute of General Medical Sciences. 45 Center Dr., MSC 6200, Bethesda, MD 20892-6200. Telephone: 301-496-7301. Website: http://www.nigms.nih.gov (accessed March 15, 2016).

* epithelial (ep-eh-THELE-ee-al) tissue is made up of cells closely packed and ranged in one or more layers and covers the whole surface of the body. This tissue is adapted to form the covering or lining of all internal and external body surfaces.

* debridement (dee-BRIDE-mint) is the removing of skin tissue, such as skin damaged from burns.

* acetaminophen (uh-see-teh-MIH-noh-fen) is a medication commonly used to reduce fever and relieve pain

Disclaimer:   This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.

(MLA 8th Edition)