Everyone reading this has experienced some level of a skin burn in your life. If you haven’t, you are sheltered and you need to get out in the world! Seriously, from simple sun burns to touching that hot item on the stove, or reaching into the over too quickly most of us have been burned to varying degrees. In their most minor form, burns seldom require much attention, the pain is brief and we go on with our lives.
Everything changes if we have a survival situation or disaster for two main reasons. First is that the likelihood you could receive a more serious burn is increased. If we have a total loss of power, you may be forced to cook over open flames. In most disasters we have some element of fire that you may need to contend with. In a real grid-down scenario you could easily get scalded when you are trying to boil your water to make sure it is safe for consumption or any one of hundreds of different possibilities. There could be accidents dealing with using fuel such as gas to power your emergency generator.
The second factor is that access to medical attention might be slow or even impossible. When you can’t run to the Emergency Room or the neighborhood clinic, the responsibility for medical care may rest on your shoulders. Knowing how to recognize and treat burns is a medical skill that everyone in your family should have.
Recognizing the difference
Burns are categorized according to severity and the severity determines the burn treatment options.
1st-degree burn – A first degree burn is the least serious of the type of burns you can receive and it is limited to only the outer layer of skin. This is a surface burn that doesn’t go all of the way through.
You can tell the burn is a first degree burn by the following characteristics:
- The skin is usually red
- Often there is swelling
- The burn is causing pain
2nd-degree burn – When the burn goes past the first layer of skin to the second layer that is a second degree burn. A quick way to tell the difference between a first degree and second degree burn are the presence of blisters.
You can tell the burn is a second degree burn by the following characteristics:
- Blisters develop
- Skin takes on an intensely reddened, splotchy appearance
- There is severe pain and swelling.
3rd-degree burns are the most serious and can be life threatening. In a severe burn, the skin has been removed and fat, muscle and even bone areas may be affected.
Third degree burns may have the following characteristics:
- Black or charred skin
- Person may have difficulty inhaling and exhaling – Carbon monoxide poisoning
- There may be no pain at all from the burn
Now that we have some reference on the types of burns out there, what are your treatment options? Since it is more likely that you will have and be able to survive first or second degree burns, we will cover those first. 1st and 2nd degree burns that do not cover an area of more than 3 inches (length of your finger) are considered a minor burn.
If a minor burn occurs, there are several steps you can take for immediate treatment of the burn. Run cool water, not ice water, over the areas where the skin is unbroken. Soak the burned skin in this cool water. Keep the burn under water for at least five minutes. Do not apply water if the burn occurred in a cold environment. Instead, use a clean, cold and wet towel to reduce the pain.
Cover the burn with a sterile bandage or clean cloth and protect it from pressure and friction.
Over-the-counter pain medications may help reduce inflammation and swelling as well as help with the pain.
Minor burns usually heal without more treatment. Treat a burn as a major burn if the area is more than 2 to 3 inches in diameter or if it is located on the hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks or major joints.
If a major burn occurs, there are several steps you can take to immediately treat and care for the burn. The first and most obvious step is to ensure the source of heat is extinguished. If someone else has caught fire, douse them with water, wrap them in a thick, non-synthetic material such as wool or cotton or lay them on the ground flat and roll them. “Stop, drop and roll” from your childhood is a helpful tool if your clothes catch on fire.
If clothing cannot be removed from the victim make sure the victim is not in contact with smoldering materials.
If the victim has stopped breathing or his/her airway is blocked, open the airway and perform rescue breathing and CPR as needed.
If the victim is breathing, cover the burn area with a moist, cool sterile bandage or clean cloth. Do not apply ointments and be careful not to break burn blisters.
Separate the victim’s fingers and toes with dry, sterile, non-adhesive bandages.
Protect the burned area from pressure and friction by elevating it. To prevent shock, lay the victim flat, elevate the feet 12 inches and cover the victim with a coat or blanket. Do not put the victim in this position if he or she is uncomfortable or if you suspect a head, neck, back or leg injury.
Until medical help arrives, continue to monitor victims’ pulse, rate of breathing and blood pressure if possible.
- Don’t use ice. Putting ice directly on a burn can cause a person’s body to become too cold and cause further damage to the wound.
- Don’t apply egg whites, butter or ointments to the burn. This could cause infection.
- Don’t break blisters. Broken blisters are more vulnerable to infection.
Hopefully you will never be faced with anything more serious than a minor first degree burn, but it is important to know what to do just in case.