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Burn injury

A burn is tissue damage caused by heat, chemicals, electricity, sunlight, or radiation. Hot liquids and steam, fire, and flammable liquids and gases are the most common causes of burns. Burns are described as first, second, or third degree, depending on the level of injury:

  • First-degree burns affect only the outer layer of skin.
  • Second-degree burns affect both the outer and middle layers of skin.
  • Third-degree burns involve all three layers of skin and usually destroy other tissues as well, such as nerve endings.

Twenty-five years ago, burns covering half of the body were often fatal. But today, people with burns covering more than 90 percent of their bodies often survive. Deep burns or burns that cover a large area of the body are best treated at burn centers. These are hospitals that are specially equipped and staffed to care for burn victims.

Research in burn and wound care has led to faster and improved healing of damaged tissue. If you have a large or deep burn, your doctor may cover it with a skin graft. This could be a piece of skin from a healthy part of your body or manmade skin. After receiving a skin graft, you may need physical therapy to keep your joints in the burned area from "freezing up" as the wound heals.

Recovery from severe burns can take a long time — sometimes years — and scarring or impairment could be permanent. Coping with a long recovery and change in appearance or physical abilities, on top of the emotional effects of surviving a fire, accident, or other traumatic event, can be very hard. Some people with severe burns become depressed. Good medical care and support can help many burn survivors adjust and feel better.

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More information on Burn injury

Explore other publications and websites

  • Burns - This online tutorial explains how the skin works, what happens when the skin is burned, and the symptoms of a burn.
  • Know the Law: A Burn Survivor's Resource (Copyright © Phoenix Society) - This booklet introduces the legal rights of burn survivors. It discusses the different forms of assistance and protection burn survivors may claim, including government benefits, worker's compensation, and support groups.

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Content last updated: September 22, 2009.

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