What are the different types of burns?

Burns range from the first- to the third- degree. In this video, Alexander Majidian, MD, FACS of the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital, explains the severity of each type of burn.

There are three primary types of burns: first, second and third-degree burns. Each degree of burn is based on the severity of damage to the skin.

First-degree burns are also referred to as superficial burns. These are the least severe burns; they involve only the epidermal or outermost layer of the skin. The signs and symptoms of a first-degree burn include redness, minor swelling and pain, but the skin remains intact. An example of a first-degree burn would be a sunburn or minor flash burn. First-degree burns typically heal on their own in three to six days.

Second-degree burns are also referred to as partial thickness burns. These burns are more serious because the damage extends beyond the top layer of skin; with second degree burns, the epidermis and a portion of the dermis is affected. The burn causes the skin to blister; it then becomes red, weepy and very painful. Second-degree burns can be caused by an explosion, electrical injury or contact with a hot object. Due to the delicate nature of second-degree burns, frequent bandaging and antibiotic ointment is required to prevent the wound from becoming infected. Superficial second-degree burns heal within two to three weeks. In some severe cases, skin grafting is required to surgically repair the burned skin damage.

Third-degree burns are also referred to as full thickness burns. They are the worst burns and cause the most damage, extending through every layer of skin. Third-degree burns can by caused by flames, high voltage electrical current or contact with hot materials. Third-degree burns can impact the bloodstream, major organs and even bones. Individuals who have experienced a third-degree burn may not feel pain due to damage to nerve damage. These burns appear tan, brown or black in color and are typically dry. Wound debridement (the removal of unhealthy tissue from a wound), skin grafting or other surgical procedures may be used to help a third-degree burn heal.

Burns are classified according to the type and depth of the injury. The most common types of burns are thermal, chemical or electrical, with thermal being the most common. A thermal burn is caused by heat, whether from hot liquids or fire. Burns are classified as first, second and third degree, based on the depth of the injury. A first-degree burn only involves the outer layer of the skin, called the epidermis. A sunburn is one example of a first-degree burn. A second-degree burn involves part of the dermis, which is the inner layer. A third-degree burn involves all of the dermis. The deeper the burn, the more serious the injury and the more scarring can be expected.

There are different types of burns depending on how deep the damage is.

  • If the damage involves just the top layer of skin (the epidermis), then it’s a first-degree burn. Superficial burns like this make the skin painful and red, like sunburn.
  • Second-degree burns affect the second layer (the dermis), too. This means the skin gets very red, painful, and swollen, and it may blister.
  • A third-degree burn goes through both the epidermis and the dermis.
  • A fourth-degree burn means that the fat layer, and even the muscle or bone, are damaged, too.

The different types of burns are classified by both their depth and the total body area that is affected. In addition, burns involving the face, feet, hands, and genitalia require more stringent criteria for management. The former classification of first, second and third degree is no longer utilized.

First-degree burns are the least severe. They are red and painful, swell slightly, and turn white when pressed. Second-degree burns have blisters and are painful. They affect both the outer and middle layer of skin. Third-degree burns cause damage to all layers of the skin. The burned skin looks white or charred. These burns may cause little or no pain if nerves are damaged. (This answer provided for NATA by the Southern Connecticut State University Athletic Training Education Program).

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.