What are burns?

Burns are injuries to the skin and other tissues of the body, that develop as a reaction to contact or exposure to agents such as the sun, heat, electricity, radiation, certain chemicals or objects and substances at a high temperature.

You can distinguish three different types of burns depending on their severity:

  • First degree burn: Only the outer layer of the skin is damaged.
  • Second degree burn: In this type of burn, both the outer layer of the skin and the layer beneath it are damaged.
  • Third degree burn: These are the most dangerous for your health, since they damage the deepest layers of the skin and even the tissues that are underneath.

They can also be classified according to the extent of the body they have affected: minor burns are those that have reached less than 10% of the total surface of the body, whilst in moderate burns they can reach up to 20% of the total surface and in major burns 20% is exceeded.


Burns can be very severe, and become potentially life threatening. The consequences of burns will depend on the agent that caused it and the degree of injury. Burns are especially dangerous in babies, in children up to 4 years old and the elderly, since their skin is usually thinner.

The damage caused by skin burns are cumulative. For example, sunburn can lead to skin cancer. In many cases the development of skin cancer appears during adulthood, as a result of a lifelong accumulated skin damage caused by sunburn.

Symptoms of burns:

The main symptoms of burns include:

  • Reddening of the skin or in more serious cases, white or charred skin
  • Blisters
  • Peeling skin
  • Pain and burning
  • Inflammation

In case of respiratory tract burns symptoms may include:

  • Cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Burns on the face or neck
  • Wheezing
  • Dark mucus or with black spots
  • Changes in voice

Medical tests for burns:

The diagnostic examination of burns usually begins with a physical examination by a dermatologist, who will assess the extent of the affected skin and the severity of the burn.

Depending on the symptoms of the patient and the severity of the burn, the specialist may also require tests, such as X-rays or other imaging tests, to detect whether the internal structures of the patient have been affected.

What are the causes of burns?

The most common causes of burns are:

  • Sun exposure.
  • Heat: Either in the form of fire (flames), objects at high temperature, cooking liquids, cooked foods that are still hot or steamed.
  • Cold: Extreme cold elements such as ice or liquid nitrogen also cause burns.
  • Chemical: burns of chemical origin are caused by contact or intake of abrasive chemicals, like bleach.
  • Electricity: by contact with unprotected cables or by putting your fingers or objects in the socket.

Can burns be prevented?

There are different methods to protect the skin and prevent it from sunburn: sunscreen can be applied in the form of creams, gels and sprays, as well as lip balms with sun protection. It is also recommended to avoid sun exposure in the hours of peak sun intensity, around midday. Covering yourself with a hat or clothing also prevents sunburn.

Of course, it is essential to avoid fires, to avoid having contact with fire or high temperature elements such as irons, frying pans, ovens or vitroceramic hobs, and avoid direct contact with highly flammable substances or abrasive chemical products.

Treatments for burns

The treatment for burns will depend on the type of burn and degree of severity. Smaller burns can be treated with aloe vera and specific creams.

In more serious burns the treatment may include medications, bandages and physiotherapy, aiming to eliminate the pain, preventing or curing infections, removing dead tissue, reducing the appearance of scars and recovering normal functions.

The purpose of burn surgery is to treat and restore both the appearance of the tissues affected by this type of injury and the recovery of its functionality, in cases of major burns. Depending on the depth and the cause of the burn, as well as the location of the scars, different treatments or interventions will be required to repair the injuries caused in the tissues and structures or in the organs affected.

Currently, techniques of natural cell regeneration and skin graft implantation are applied, in cases where the tissue that has been destroyed by a burn can’t regenerate by itself. To do this, thanks to the advances of plastic surgery in this field, cells of the skin are cultivated that allow the creation of skin grafts which can reconstruct this type of injury when they are very serious, obtaining a safer and more satisfactory results to heal burns.

What specialist treats burns?

Dermatologists are responsible for detecting burns and prescribing their treatment. In case the patient requires surgery, he will go to a specialist in plastic and reconstructive surgery.

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