A burn is damage to your skin, most often caused by fire/flame or steam and hot liquids. Burns can also be caused by chemicals, heated objects, or even electricity. They range from minor to severe, and while serious injuries can be life-threatening, any burn that causes a break in the skin can result in an infection, which can lead to sepsis.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Sepsis kills and disables millions and requires early suspicion and treatment for survival.
Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, or urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.
Types of burns
Burns are categorized according to their severity:
These are the types of burns that most people experience at some time. They are minor injuries that affect just the outer layer of skin, called the epidermis. They can be painful, causing redness to the skin and some swelling. Mild sunburns are a common type of first degree burn.
These injuries are deeper than first degree burns, affecting the epidermis and the second layer of the skin, called the dermis. If the burn is small, less than two to three inches wide, it is considered minor, but more extensive second degree burns are treated as major burns. Second degree burns are also considered major if they are on the face, hands, feet, a major joint, groin/genitals, or buttocks.
Second degree burns are usually painful and cause redness and swelling. They may cause blistering and breaks in the skin, increasing your risk of developing an infection. Sunburns that blister and are very painful are considered to be second degree burns.
These are serious injuries, even if they are small. They can be life-threatening. These burns go through the layers of the skin to the fat below. There may be no pain in the area because the nerves may be destroyed, although there will likely be pain around the site, where the burns are not as deep.
People with third degree burns are at particular risk for dehydration, infection, and sepsis.
Burns on your face
Burns on your face, regardless of the severity, may also cause internal burns in your airway, which can be life-threatening. Facial burns can happen as part of a larger burn, but your face can get burned if you are too close to the flame when you light a barbecue or pilot light, or even if you suddenly release steam from a pot, for example. If you have burned in your airway, you may experience:
- Burns on your lips and mouth
- Difficulty breathing
- Changes in your voice
Major burns must be treated as medical emergencies. Seek emergency help or call 9-1-1 if you have a third-degree or a second-degree burn that covers more than two to three inches in width or is on your face, hands, feet, a major joint, groin, genitals, or buttocks.
- Soak the burned area in water
- Put ice on the burned area
- Apply any ointments or creams to the burned area
- Remove any clothing or fabric that is stuck to the burned area
If a chemical causes the burn, rinse the area with clean running or poured water to try to flush the chemical away. By running or pouring water over the burn, the chemical may be pushed off and away from the skin. If possible, loosely cover the burn with a clean or sterile cloth or bandage.
Treatment for severe burns may include:
- Intravenous (IV) fluids to keep you hydrated
- Medications, particularly for pain
- Burn creams and ointments, and special burn dressings
- Antibiotics to treat infections
Care for less serious burns
First degree and smaller second degree burns are usually managed well at home. First aid may include soaking the burned area in clean, cool (not cold) water for a few minutes to stop the burning process and then drying gently. Pat to dry, do not rub. Creams, such as aloe vera or burn ointments, may help relieve some of the pain or discomfort. Keep the burns clean and loosely covered, and monitor for breaks in the skin and signs of infection. Do not break any blisters that may form.
If you show any of the following signs of infection, contact your doctor or go to an urgent care clinic, so your burn can be evaluated and treated:
- Pus or discharge from the burn site
- Increase in pain
- Change of color around the burned area
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Reviewed January 3, 2023.