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First-, Second-, And Third-Degree Burns: Which Do You Have?

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Before you decide whether to go to a walk-in clinic or emergency room, you must first distinguish a minor burn from a serious burn. According to the American Burn Association, there was an estimated 450,000 burn injuries that received medical treatment in 2013. Burn injuries are separated into three primary classifications, including first-degree burns, second-degree burns, and third-degree burns. If you've suffered a burn, use the following guide to determine the seriousness of your injury.

First-Degree Burns

First-degree burns are the least serious of all burns and can usually be treated at most walk-in clinics. With a first-degree burn, only the outer layer of the skin is burned. These superficial burns can be caused by sunburns, scalds from hot liquids or steam, electric shocks, or touching fire or other hot object. Symptoms of a first degree burn may include:

  • Skin redness
  • Pain
  • Minor inflammation (swelling)
  • Dry skin
  • Peeling skin
  • Skin that is tender to the touch

Since a first degree burn affects only the top layer of skin, the signs and symptoms associated with this type of burn generally go away once the skin cells in the affected area have shed. It should only be necessary to see a doctor for a first degree burn if the burn affects a large area of the skin or if the burn is on the face or other major joint.

Second-Degree Burns

Second-degree burns occur when the skin has been burned through to the second layer of skin, or dermis. This type of burn is generally more serious as it extends past the top layer of skin and causes a risk of infection. Not all walk-in clinics treat second-degree burns, so it's best to call and determine if you should go to the clinic or emergency room. Symptoms of a second-degree burn may include:

  • Reddened skin
  • Splotchy skin
  • Blisters
  • Severe pain
  • White or discolored patches
  • Skin that appears wet and shiny
  • Inflammation (swelling)

Due to the severity of a second-degree burn, this type of wound generally requires bandaging to prevent infection. Proper care of a second-degree wound will also help it heal quicker. If the burn covers a large area or if the damage is severe, skin grafting may be necessary to repair the burned area.

Third-Degree Burns

The most serious of all burns is the third-degree burn. This type of burn affects all layers of the skin and can result in permanent tissue damage. In addition to skin, muscle, fat and bone can also become damaged. Although most people would consider a third-degree burn to be the most painful, the burn can damage the nerves so you may not feel any pain at all. Symptoms of a third-degree burn may include:

  • Black, charred skin
  • Areas of skin that appear waxy and white
  • Dark brown splotches
  • Leathery, raised areas of skin
  • Inflammation (swelling)
  • Lack of pain due to damaged nerve endings

Do not attempt to treat a third-degree burn on your own, as you could unintentionally exacerbate your condition. Call 911 immediately or go to the nearest emergency room for medical help. While waiting for medical treatment, raise the injury above your heart if possible and make sure no clothing is stuck to the burn.

Third-degree burns carry the highest risk for complications due to the severity of the damage. Such complications may include blood loss, infections and shock. In severe cases, sepsis or a blood infection can occur. This can result in shock or even death. Another possible complication includes tetanus, or a bacterial infection that affects the nervous system. Tetanus can result in problems with muscle contractions.

If you have suffered a burn, it's important to quickly inspect the look and feel of the burn to determine its seriousness. For more information about burns, contact your local walk-in clinic or emergency department.