First Aid for Burns

  • Medical Author:
    Benjamin Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM

    Dr. Ben Wedro practices emergency medicine at Gundersen Clinic, a regional trauma center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. His background includes undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Alberta, a Family Practice internship at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario and residency training in Emergency Medicine at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

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How important is the location of a burn?

Burn location is an important consideration.

If the burn involves the face, nose, mouth or neck, there is a risk that there will be enough inflammation and swelling to obstruct the airway and cause breathing problems.

If there are circumferential burns to the chest, as the burn progresses, the tissue involved may not allow enough motion of the chest wall to allow adequate breathing to occur. If circumferential burns occur to arms, legs, fingers, or toes, the same constriction may not allow blood flow and put the survival of the extremity at risk. Burns to areas of the body with flexion creases, like the palm of the hand, the back of the knee, the face, and the groin may need specialized care. As the burn matures, the skin may scar and shorten, preventing full range of motion of the body area.

What about electrical burns?

Electrical burns may cause serious injury that is not readily apparent. Often the entry and exit points for the electrical shock may not be easily found.

Electricity flows more easily through tissues in the body that are designed to deal with electricity. Nerves and muscles are "wired" for this task and often are damaged. If significant muscle damage occurs, muscle fibers and chemicals can be released into the bloodstream causing electrolyte disturbances and kidney failure.

What about chemical burns?

Burns can also occur when chemicals are spilled onto the body and generate a reaction that creates heat. Chemical burns may be classified by their pH or acidity.

  • Acids are those with pH less than 7 and include common household compounds like acetic acid, hydrochloric acid, or sulfuric acid.
  • Bases or alkali compounds have a pH greater than 7. Ammonia is a common alkali found in the home.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/20/2015

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