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Thermal (Heat or Fire) Burns

Facts on Thermal Burns

  • From simple sunburn on vacation to touching a hot pot on a stove, many of us have experienced minor burns at one time or another.
  • Thermal burn injuries are very common. Children are particularly at risk due to accidental burns.
  • The type of burn and the severity of the burn depend on the number of layers of skin affected.
  • Most burns are mild, but some may be severe.
  • Most importantly, a majority of burns are estimated to be preventable.

What Causes Thermal Burns?

You may get burned from any hot or heated source or from chemical reactions that release heat.

  • Thermal burns
    • Flame
    • Scald (from steam, hot or molten liquid)
    • Contact (from a hot object, such as a hot cooking pan)
    • Electrical burns
    • Radiation burns (sunburn, medical radiation treatment for cancers, welding exposures)
    • Chemical burns

What Are the Symptoms of Thermal Burns?

All thermal burns (from fire or flame) cause an injury to the different layers of the skin. The type of burn and the severity of the burn depends on the number of layers of skin affected.

Traditionally burns were described using the word degrees (first, second, and third). Now most doctors describe burns as to their thickness (superficial, partial, and full).

The skin is made up of three important layers:

  1. the epidermis (or the outer layer),
  2. the dermis, and
  3. the subcutaneous tissues.

Each corresponds roughly to the types of burns. (It is important to note that many burn injuries may include all three types of burns at the same time.)

  • Superficial burn or first degree burn: This burn involves only the epidermis, the outermost layer of the skin. Most people are familiar with this burn in the form of sunburn.
  • Symptoms and signs - Painful, red, area turns white when touched, no blisters, moist
  • Partial thickness burn or second degree burn: This burn involves the epidermis and some portion of the dermis, the second layer of the skin. This type of burn may be further categorized as superficial or deep, depending on how much of the dermis is involved.
  • Superficial symptoms and signs - Painful, red, area turns white to touch, mottling, blisters, moist, hairs still present
  • Deep symptoms and signs - May or may not be painful (it may be so deep that nerve endings may be destroyed), may be moist or dry (so deep that sweat glands are destroyed), may or may not turn white when area is touched, hair is usually gone
  • Full thickness burn or third degree burn: This is the most severe burn. The burn involves all of the epidermis and dermis—the first two layers of the skin. Nerve endings, tiny blood vessels, hair follicles, and tiny sweat glands are all destroyed. If very severe, the burn may involve bone and muscle.
  • Symptoms and signs - Painless, no sensation to touch, pearly white or charred, dry, may appear leathery
Last Reviewed 11/21/2017

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Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Thermal Burns (Heat or Fire):

Thermal Burn - Causes

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Thermal Burn - Self-Care at Home

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Thermal Burn - Medical Treatment

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Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Burns, Thermal »

Burn injuries account for an estimated 700,000 annual emergency department (ED) visits per year.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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