When to Go to the ER for a Burn

At some point or another, most people have suffered a burn: Whether you were a curious child who touched the coffee maker just to see how hot it could really be, to burning the roof of your mouth with melted cheese from a pizza, we’ve all been there. But what happens if you have a more serious accident, such as spilling hot frying oil on yourself, or getting too close to a bonfire?

While some people may choose to tough it out until they heal, if the burn is serious enough, it could result in life-threatening complications.

Degrees of Skin Burns

Not all skin burns are created equal. Burns can be caused by various sources: fire, hot liquid, chemicals, sun, steam, radiation and electricity. And any of these elements could result in first, second, or third-degree burns.

1. First Degree Burns

These burns occur when there is damage to only the outer layer of the skin (epidermis). They are mild and usually result in redness and pain in the burn area.

2. Second-Degree Burns

These burns affect both the outer layer of the skin, as well as the second layer (dermis). It results in more intense pain, blistering, swelling, and redness.

3. Third-Degree Burns

Third-degree burns affect the epidermis, and dermis, as well as the innermost layer of skin (hypodermis). They are extremely dangerous, since the hypodermis contains sweat glands, hair follicles, and connective tissue. When burned, it results in charred, numb skin.

Symptoms of a Serious Burn

As described above, symptoms depend on the type of burn.

  • Pain that varies depending on the severity of the burn
  • Redness of the skin
  • Swelling
  • Peeling skin
  • Blistering
  • Charred skin

When to See a Doctor for a Burn

Always seek medical attention if the burn covers a large portion of the body (an entire limb, torso, face, back, buttocks, or genitals).

Even if it’s a small burn, you need to go to the emergency room at any indication of a third-degree burn: breathing difficulties, charred skin, skin that looks leathery or has white blotches, puss oozing from the burn, odor to the burn, or a burn that was caused by electricity or chemicals.

Complications of an Untreated Burn

Complications of third-degree burns can be serious. They include bacterial infection, scarring, hypothermia, breathing difficulty, tightening of the skin, and issues with joint mobility (especially if the burn affected any muscles or tendons).

In a worst-case scenario, the body can go into septic shock. This occurs when the burn causes an infection that’s serious enough to lower the body’s blood pressure to the point where the organs no longer receive an adequate blood or oxygen supply. It’s as serious as it sounds, and it can be fatal. Symptoms of septic shock include dizziness, shortness of breath, severe muscular pain, disorientation, vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of consciousness.

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