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How Are Burn Degrees Determined?

Posted on October 4, 2018

Burns are painful injuries that can easily lead to long-term scarring and disability. Medical professionals use a degree scale to classify burn injuries, and it’s a good idea to know the different types of burns, which ones deserve immediate medical attention, and which ones have a chance to cause permanent damage.

First-Degree Burns

The least severe type of burn is a first-degree burn, which only affects the outermost layer of the skin. These burns rarely cause any type of permanent scarring, but a burned patch of skin may show more or less color than the surrounding skin after it heals completely. Most first-degree burns do not require emergency medical treatment, and a victim of a first-degree burn should be able to treat such injuries with over-the-counter medicines and first aid supplies. However, if a first-degree burn covers more than 10% of the surface area of the skin or affects a sensitive area like the face or groin, the victim should seek emergency medical care.

Second-Degree Burns

The next type of burn is a second-degree burn. This type of burn penetrates more deeply into the skin, burning the epidermis and the dermis beneath it. Second-degree burns may appear red, blistered, and swollen. They may also be painful to touch. While a very small second-degree burn may be treatable with over-the-counter first aid supplies and pain medication, it is a good idea for anyone who sustains a second-degree burn to seek medical care.

Third-Degree Burns

Some of the most severe burn injuries are third-degree burns. With this type of burn, the entirety of the skin sustains damage. Third-degree burns destroy the epidermis and dermis and may affect the underlying tissues below the skin. The injury site may appear waxy, white, or charred. A third-degree burn is a medical emergency that demands immediate attention. A third-degree burn may result in scarring or limited mobility as the skin will lose its elasticity after healing.

Fourth-Degree Burns

The most severe burns are fourth-degree burns that destroy the skin and subcutaneous tissue, exposing the muscles or bone below the injury site. These are open wounds that require immediate emergency treatment, and even small fourth-degree burns are life-threatening. A fourth-degree burn may lead to internal organ damage, infections, and a fourth-degree burn on an arm or leg may necessitate amputation.

The medical community also acknowledges fifth- and even sixth-degree burns, but victims rarely survive these injuries. These burns typically destroy large portions of the body.

Long-Term Risks From Burn Injuries

The potential for long-term difficulties exists after a burn injury, even a seemingly mild one. Burned skin may take time to recover, and some burn victims have trouble and pain when moving parts of their bodies that sustained burn injuries. Burns damage the skin and cause it to tighten, so the injured skin at the site of a burn injury will not be as pliable as the skin around it. This can cause an unpleasant and painful tugging sensation, potentially limiting mobility. This is especially true for burns that affect the joints like the knees or elbows.

More severe burns may require skin grafting procedures that take a long time to heal. Surgeons apply healthy donor skin tissue to the burn injury site, and ideally the patient’s body accepts the donation and the injury heals more fully. Second-degree, and higher, burns damage nerve endings, and the damage may be long-term or permanent. Damaged nerves may lead to reduced motor functions or a loss of touch sensation.

In any burn injury case, the long-term damage has the potential to be extensive. Recovery from a burn injury can take months, even years, require multiple surgeries, and may necessitate physical therapy and other forms of rehabilitation. If there is any doubt whether a burn injury warrants a trip to the emergency room, it is always best to err on the side of caution and seek treatment and legal consul from a Birmingham burn injury attorney.