Types of Burn Injuries
Columbia St. Mary's Regional Burn Center is capable of treating every
kind of burn, regardless of its size or severity. The Center has been
taking care of burn patients for over 50 years and has a wealth of
experience about the special care burn wounds require. Because of this
expertise with burn injuries, the Center also treats patients with other
large wounds to the skin as well as patients suffering from smoke
We are one of only two Burn Centers in the state of Wisconsin certified
by the American Burn Association in the care for burn-injured adults.
This certification process provides confirmation that a burn center has
demonstrated its commitment to providing the highest quality of care for
Specialized burn centers such as Columbia St. Mary's have experience
specific to managing burn wounds, burn pain and all of the unique care
that a burn patient requires.
Thermal Burns: Can be caused by flame, heat or
contact with a hot object.
Chemical Burns: These burns most often occur in
industrial settings; however, they can also be caused by common
household cleaners and swimming pool chemicals. Many times,
chemical burns do not appear serious at first, but become worse
as they continue to react with the exposed tissue.
Scald Burns: Scalds are produced by hot liquids
such as water or cooking oil. These are the most common burns
seen in children. Elderly persons are also at risk especially
when their sensitivity to heat or cold is diminished.
Electrical Burns: In addition to the actual
burn, electricity can cause serious internal injuries that are
not immediately visible to emergency personnel or other
healthcare providers. Electrical burns can cause everything from
heart attack and neurological damage to broken bones and
ruptured ear drums. Electrical current can cause either a flash
of flame or electrocution. Electrocution injuries are always
much worse than they appear. With electrocution, even a small
dime-sized burn can place a person at risk for loosing a limb.
Normal Skin Layers
First Degree Burn: This is also called a
superficial burn injury. It looks like a typical sunburn injury:
a bit pink, a bit sore and may make the victim feel a bit
dehydrated. Only the very outer layer of skin (epidermis) has
been damaged. The deeper skin structures are still intact. There
are no open wounds. Sunburn or tanning beds are usually the
cause of a first degree burn. First degree burns usually heal in
a few days. Medical care is usually not required unless it
involves most of the body and you’re dehydrated, or are having
problems with pain control. Consult your doctor if you’re
When someone suffers a first degree burn they should:
Drink plenty of fluids
Apply lotion to dry skin areas as they are
Second Degree Burn: This is also called a
partial thickness burn injury. It’s called a partial thickness
injury, because in addition to the outer skin layer (epidermis),
part of the inner skin layer (dermis) has also been damaged.
Second degree burns are bright red (like the color of red meat),
moist, and painful to the touch. Many times they will also
blister and look like an open wound. They generally take two to
three weeks to heal.
Other information about second degree burns:
Seek medical care if it is a large wound.
Consult a doctor if you’re concerned.
In very young or elderly patients, a second
degree burn (like a scald) can convert to a
deeper and more serious burn.
Second degree burns become more serious when
combined with other health problems.
Second degree burns to more than 10% of the body
should be treated at a specialized burn center.
If the area is deep, sometimes skin grafting may
Third Degree Burn: This is also called a full
thickness burn injury. It’s called a full thickness burn injury
because besides the outer skin layer (epidermis), the full inner
skin layer (epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous tissue) has also
been damaged. The color of third degree burns may vary: They
look like an open wound that may be dark red (like the color of
red wine), white, brown and leathery or charred in appearance.
They are less painful to the touch because the nerve endings
have been damaged. Seek medical care for any third degree burn.
Other information about third degree burns:
Surgery will be required for skin grafting
unless it is a very small area.
In the very young or with elderly patients, or
those with other health problems or trauma, any
burn can make the injury more serious.
Third degree burns should be treated at a
specialized burn center.
Burns that require specialized care in a burn facility:
Second degree burns affecting more than 10% of
the body surface.
Any third degree burn requires immediate medical
Burns over sensitive areas like joints, face,
head, neck, genitals or hands, or where joint
function or cosmetic outcome could be
Electrical (including lightening), chemical
burns or inhalation injuries.
Patients who also have serious health problems
beside the burn injury.
Patients who have trauma and burns should be
evaluated by the physician. If the trauma is the
greater threat to life, treatment initially at a
trauma center is needed.
Burn children need specialized burn care in
facilities that have equipment and personnel
trained to deal with the special needs of
The leading cause of death in fires is smoke inhalation, not burns from
flames. Mild smoke inhalation usually responds to oxygen given by
emergency personnel. If the injured person can’t breathe on their own
without use of a respirator (ventilator), this is a severe inhalation
injury. In severe inhalation injuries, there is a significant risk of
Smoke inhalation injuries can be caused by toxins in the smoke, or burns
in the face and airways from the heat of the smoke. Toxins in smoke
include carbon monoxide and cyanide.
The best way to treat severe smoke inhalation injuries is to prevent
them from happening in the first place. Always use care with flammable
materials. Have furnaces checked regularly. Change batteries regularly
in your smoke detectors. Consider the use of a carbon monoxide detector
in your home.
Frostbite is another type of thermal burn. Frostbite involves the
freezing of tissue, when ice crystals form in or on the tissue leading
to damaged skin and muscle. Frostbite can happen in cold weather, but
especially in weather that is both cold and wet.
Areas most sensitive to frostbite are fingers, toes, your nose
Seek immediate medical care for frostbite to prevent further
permanent damage to sensitive tissues.
Avoid frostbite by dressing properly for the weather.
Exfoliative Disorders (Skin slough disorders): Some
medical problems or drug allergies can cause a large area of skin to
peel away (slough). These skin disorders often appear like a second
degree burn. Blisters are a cause for concern, especially when the
medical problem might be a drug allergy reaction. Blisters usually form
before the skin begins to peel away. Catching the problem early is very
important. These reactions can be so extensive that other tissues are
affected. Sore eyes or mouth could also be a concern.
Examples of exfoliative disorders or major skin disorders:
Steven’s Johnson Syndrome
TEN: Toxic Epidermal Necrolysis
SSSS: Staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome
DRESS Syndrome: Drug Reaction with Eosinophila and
Consult your physician immediately for medical care. If the cause of the
problem is an allergic drug reaction, stopping the drug as soon as
possible is important. Developing blisters, eye irritation or other
severe problems can be a serious health problem.
There are other wounds that may look similar to a burn injury but are
caused by other trauma or medical problems. Because the staff of
Columbia St. Mary’s Regional Burn Center has extensive expertise in
caring for very large burns, they also have experience caring for
patients with other wounds.
To schedule a community education talk, learn more about our support
groups, or to speak to a member of our staff regarding a patient
referral or other matter please call 414-585-1680.