By Dr. Shen Satkunarasa
A burn is an injury to the skin. It can be caused by heat, cold, electricity, chemicals and radiation. Burns can be mild, like when you touch a hot kettle and manage to pull your hand away. Burns can also be more severe, requiring treatment in hospital.
What does the skin usually do?
Your skin is your largest organ. It covers every part of your body. It does lots of different jobs, like:
- Acting as a waterproof barrier
- Stopping germs getting inside the body
- Making sure your body temperature is just right
Your skin is made up two layers: the top layer, called the epidermis, which keeps germs and water out; and the dermis, the bottom layer, which gives your skin its strength and stops it from tearing.
What happens when you have a burn?
Burns damage your skin. The burn may only affect the outer skin layer, or it may involve all the layers.
If the burn damages only the epidermis, it is called a superficial burn. If the burn damages some of the dermis as well, it is called a partial-thickness burn. A full-thickness burn is when all the skin layers have been damaged.
How does it affect you?
Burns are usually painful, and the area of affected skin can become red, swollen and blistered.
The effect a burn has on your body depends on how much skin has been injured and how deep the injury is.
With serious burns, your skin mightn't be able to do its usual jobs. This is why, after a burn, you might be more likely to get infections.
Damaged skin cannot keep water and heat inside your body like it normally does, so if the burn involves a lot of skin, you may feel cold and dry.
What should you do if you have had a burn?
Most burns can be treated at home. However, you need to see your doctor immediately if the burn area is bigger than the palm of your hand, or if it is blistered.
You should also see your doctor if the burn is on an area of skin that needs to bend, like your knee or elbow, or if it is on the face, neck, feet or hands.
Full-thickness burns cannot heal on their own so they always need hospital treatment.
What treatments are there for burns?
Dressings cover the burn and keep germs out. Medicines help any pain you might have.
For more severe burns, you might be given fluids to replace the water lost through the damaged skin and medicines to fight infections.
Sometimes an operation is needed to clean the wound and to get rid of the damaged skin. To give your body energy to heal, you might receive extra nutrition.
Once the wound is clean, an operation called a skin graft is done. This means taking healthy skin from an area you do not usually see, like the thigh, and putting it on top of the burn area. The skin from the graft slowly replaces the skin damaged by the burn.
The skin graft might feel tight so a physiotherapist helps with exercises to stretch the skin. They also use creams and massages to deal with the tightness.
A splint or compression bandage can help with the tightness too.
Even though the skin graft helps the burn to heal, it can still leave a scar. Scars look different to the rest of your skin.
This might make you feel different and embarrassed, especially when people see the scar for the first time. It is important to talk to someone if you feel like this. Your family, teachers and other trained professionals, like counsellors, are there to help.
Remember, you are not alone! Other children have burns too, and there are support groups where you can meet and chat to other children who have had a similar experience.
About Dr. Shen Satkunarasa (MBBS)
Dr. Shen Satkunarasa is a medical writer at Medikidz, an organisation that provides children with informative, accessible and fun comics to help them understand health and illness.