What are complications of burns?

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  • Deep or widespread burns can lead to many complications, including:
    • Infection. Burns can leave skin vulnerable to bacterial infection and increase your risk of sepsis. Sepsis is a life-threatening infection that travels through the bloodstream and affects your whole body. It progresses rapidly and can cause shock and organ failure.
    • Low blood volume. Burns can damage blood vessels and cause fluid loss. This may result in low blood volume. Severe blood and fluid loss prevents the heart from pumping enough blood to the body.
    • Dangerously low body temperature. The skin helps control the body's temperature, so when a large portion of the skin is injured, you lose body heat. This increases your risk of a dangerously low body temperature called hypothermia. Hypothermia is a condition in which the body loses heat faster than it can produce heat.
    • Breathing problems. Breathing hot air or smoke can burn airways and cause breathing difficulties. Smoke inhalation damages the lungs and can cause respiratory failure.
    • Scarring. Burns can cause scars and ridged areas caused by an overgrowth of scar tissue (keloids).
    • Bone and joint problems. Deep burns can limit movement of the bones and joints. Scar tissue can form and cause shortening and tightening of skin, muscles or tendons. This condition may permanently pull joints out of position.
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  • Most minor burns are superficial and do not cause complications. However, deep second-degree and third-degree burns swell and take more time to heal. In addition, deeper burns can cause scar tissue to form. This scar tissue shrinks (contracts) as it heals. If the scarring occurs at a joint, the resulting contracture may restrict movement. Thick, crusty surfaces (eschars) are produced by deep third-degree burns. Eschars can become too tight, cutting off blood supply to healthy tissues or impairing breathing if occurring near the throat. Burns can also cause emotional problems, such as depression, nightmares, or flashbacks from the traumatizing event. The loss of a friend or family member and possessions in a fire may add grief to the emotional strain of a burn.

    A severe burn (third-degree) can be a seriously devastating injury, not only physically but emotionally. A severe burn can not only affect the burn victim, but the entire family. Individuals with severe burns may be left with a loss of certain physical abilities, disfigurement, loss of a limb, loss of mobility, scarring, and infection. In addition, severe burns are capable of penetrating deep skin layers, causing muscle or tissue damage that may affect every system of the body.

    Severe burns can cause serious complications due to extensive fluid loss and tissue damage. Complications from severe burns may take hours to develop. The longer the complication is present, the more severe the problems it tends to cause. Young children and older adults tend to be more seriously affected by complications than other age groups.

    Dehydration eventually develops in people with widespread burns, because fluid seeps from the blood to the burned tissues. Shock develops if dehydration is severe. Shock is a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body is not getting enough blood flow. Destruction of muscle tissue (rhabdomyolysis) occurs in deep third-degree burns. The muscle tissue releases myoglobin, one of the muscle's proteins, into the blood due to muscle tissue breakdown. If present in high concentrations, myoglobin harms the kidneys. Rhabdomyolysis can be diagnosed from tests of the blood and urine.

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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.
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