Burns are tissue damage that results from heat, overexposure to the sun or other radiation, chemical or electrical contact. They range from mild injuries that can be safely and effectively treated at home to life-threatening emergencies, so it’s important to understand exactly when to get urgent care for a burn.
Why? When a person sustains a burn, their immune system is compromised and puts them at a much higher risk for inflammation, infection, sepsis or even death.
When to get urgent care for a burn
If you or a loved one has suffered a burn, there are a few important questions you need to ask and answer right away to help you decide whether you need urgent medical care. As a general rule, head directly to your nearest urgent care or emergency room for any burn that is second degree or greater. Here are the questions you need to ask yourself immediately following a burn:
- How big is the burn?
In short, the bigger the burn, the more serious it can be. Burns that extend beyond a limited area or cover a substantial amount of your skin should be evaluated by a medical professional. Medical professionals describe burn size as a percentage of your total body surface area. For most adults, the surface area of your palm (excluding the fingers and wrist) is equal to about 1% of your skin surface. Knowing this, any burn more than 3% (or three palms) of your total body area requires immediate medical attention.
- How deep is the burn?
Burns are classified by how deep they have penetrated into your body tissue. The higher the number, the deeper and more serious the burn. Burns range from first to fourth degree and any burn that is second degree or higher will need immediate medical attention. Here is a quick breakdown of how burns are classified:
- First-degree burns are superficial and affect only the outer layer of skin. Symptoms include redness, pain and swelling (e.g., a mild sunburn).
- Second-degree burns involve the epidermis and part of the lower layer of skin (dermis). Symptoms include redness, pain, swelling and blisters.
- Third-degree burns affect the entire epidermis, dermis and may also include the subcutaneous tissue (the deepest layer of skin). Symptoms include pain, swelling and black, brown or white skin.
- Fourth-degree burns destroy the epidermis, dermis, subcutaneous tissue and deeper tissues like muscle or bone. Symptoms include pain, swelling and black, brown or white skin. You may not experience pain, however, as nerve endings are destroyed.
- Where is the burn located?
Certain locations on the body are more vulnerable to infections, are more difficult to care for or have anatomical considerations that make treatment challenging. Burns on the face, hands, feet, genitals and buttocks are considered complicated and require professional medical care. Burns that affect the entire circumference of the arm, leg or finger are also considered complicated and require urgent medical care.
- Who was burned?
Elderly people, infants, small children, diabetics and anyone with a chronic medical condition may have prolonged healing or may experience poorer outcomes, so they should be seen by a medical professional anytime they are burned to prevent complications.
First aid for a major burn
The first and most important step in treating a major burn is to call 911 or go to your nearest urgent care facility. Until you can get the urgent medical services you need, here are a few steps you can take:
- Remove any restrictive items or clothing (e.g., belts or jewelry) in or near the burn area, being careful to avoid removing any items that are stuck on the skin or burn.
- Cover the burned area with a clean towel, cloth or gauze that has been moistened with cool, clean water. Do not submerge burned areas in water, as this can lead to a severe loss of body heat, especially in the case of large burns.
- If the hands or feet have been burned, separate fingers and toes with a dry, sterile and nonadhesive bandage.
- If possible, raise the burned area above the heart to prevent swelling.
- Watch for signs of shock like shallow breathing, pale complexion and fainting.
Answering these questions will help you determine when to get urgent care for a burn. If you or a loved one has sustained a serious burn, we urge you to visit Getwell Urgent Care as soon as possible for expert, compassionate burn care. We are available 7 days a week from 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.