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When is a Burn Serious Enough to go to the Hospital?

January 16, 2022

Burns – no matter what kind – can hurt a lot and deserve immediate attention. 

But not all burns require you to head to the Emergency Department or Burn Center

Minor burns will heal on their own within a couple of weeks, though they may require some topical ointment to help control the pain. You can usually treat these at home. More severe burns pose the risk of getting infected and require you to get medical attention.

But, how can you tell the difference? It depends on the seriousness or degree of skin burn you have, the size of the burn, and the area affected.  

To understand the seriousness of a burn, you must understand that the skin has three layers:
Skin Layers

  • The epidermis (outer layer that you can touch and see).
  • Dermis (middle layer that contains hair follicles and sweat glands).
  • Hypodermis (that contains fat and tissue that connects the skin to the muscles and bones). 
  • First-degree burns only affect the epidermis and usually heal on their own. Most sunburns are first-degree burns. Signs include pain, redness, and some inflammation. There may be some peeling. Generally, you can protect the skin and alleviate the pain by using an over-the-counter burn ointment.
  • Second-degree burns damage both the epidermis and the dermis, and cause the skin to blister. Because these blisters can pop open, they are at risk of becoming infected. Second-degree burns tend to heal in three weeks. Usually, they do not scar, but the skin pigmentation may be different at the burn site.
  • Third-degree burns are more serious because they affect all layers of the skin, potentially damaging the nerves in the skin. That makes them particularly dangerous because the nerve damage means you cannot feel pain. These burns can take a long time to heal and usually leave scars. 

When you should go to the ER immediately

You should always seek medical help when you suffer a third-degree burn. Such an injury routinely causes complications like infections, blood loss, nervous system damage, and shock.

But there are times when more minor burns may require hospital care. Here are a few guidelines:

  • The burn is larger than three inches in diameter on your face, hands, feet, or a joint.  
  • The burn was caused by an electric shock or a chemical.
  • There is pus or other fluid leaking from the burn.
  • The pain gets worse with time.
  • Some skin was burned away.
  • The burn smells bad.

Treating minor burns

First-degree burns can usually be treated at home. To promote quick healing, submerge the burn in cool water for several minutes, then apply a topical anesthetic cream or antibiotic ointment, and cover the burn with gauze. If the pain lasts for an extended period of time, take an over-the-counter pain reliever.

But never put ice on your burn, because it can worsen the damage. Also, don’t clean it with cotton balls, since cotton fibers can stick to the wound and increase the risk of infection.

 Caring for second- and third-degree burns

 Call 911 to seek immediate medical attention for second- and third-degree burns. Paramedics are trained on how best to transport burn victims. But before a burn victim goes to an emergency room, taking a few steps can decrease the severity of the injury.

Because serious burns can result in life-threatening infections and leave permanent scars, if you’re not sure about the severity of a burn, call 911 and have emergency medical services personnel transport you to the most appropriate care. 

Grady is home to the Grady Burn Center – Georgia’s only adult and pediatric burn center and north Georgia’s only American Burn Association verified burn center.

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