Types of Burns and How to Prevent Them

The South African National Burn Safety Awareness Week is from 6 to 12 May.

A burn is an injury to the skin or other organic tissue.  Burns are one of the most common injury types at home and in the workplace.

There are five types of burns: Thermal burns, electrical burns, chemical burns, cold burns, and friction burns.

Types of burns and some tips on how to prevent them

1. Thermal burns

Thermal burns are the most common burn type.  Thermal burns are also called “contact burns” because they are caused by contact with hot objects, steam or boiling liquids, including fires and explosions.

  • Don’t leave the kitchen unattended while cooking.
  • When cooking, keep pot handles turned inward on the stovetop and away from the edge of the stove.
  • Always have pads readily available when using the stove, oven or microwave.
  • Ensure all burners and electric appliances are off when you’re done using them.
  • Never put hot drinks on low tables and on the edges of countertops where kids can easily reach them.
  • Place the microwave on an easily accessible height for removing hot food or liquids.
  • Never leave children alone while they are bathing.
  • Set the hot water geyser to 49°C or lower.

2. Electrical burns

Electrical burns happen through direct or non-direct contact with an electrical current.

  • Use well-insulated cables.
  • Replace or correctly repair frayed or worn electrical cords.
  • Keep appliances unplugged when not in use.
  • Manage electrical risk – wear shock-resistant PPE, including rubber gloves, insulated clothing, and protective eyewear.
  • Keep electrical appliances away from standing or running water.
  • Don’t overload electrical outlets.

3. Chemical burns

Chemical burns are caused by exposure to corrosive materials or radiation.

  • The key to prevention is proper handling of materials.
  • Be sure to store chemicals according to specifications and instructions.
  • Read all labels and safety data sheets before handling chemicals.

4. Cold burns

Cold burns occur when the skin is exposed to frigid temperatures for an extended period or by direct contact with something very cold.  Cold burns are commonly known as frostbite.

  • Proper clothing is the best way to prevent cold burns.
  • Keep a layer of clothing or a towel between your skin and sources of cold. For example, don’t apply a cold pack directly to your skin, instead wrap it in a towel first.
  • Use a bag of frozen vegetables as a substitute for a cold pack to lower the risk of a cold burn.

5. Friction burns

Chafing or friction burns occur when the skin is injured as a result of repeated skin-on-skin contact or when your skin rubs against clothing or another material.  Common causes include intense exercise, ill-fitting clothes, excess skin and hot weather.

  • If something starts hurting and feels like it’s chafing your skin, stop what you’re doing. Continuing may worsen the condition.
  • Dress in loose-fitting clothing. Check labels, and make sure to wear 100% cotton fabric.  Cotton soaks up moisture and sweat.  Seams and tags can also cause irritation.  Keep your clothing clean and dry.  Dried sweat, dirt and other debris can cause irritation.
  • Use petroleum jelly, an anti-chafing cream or an anti-chafing stick to prevent chafing in easily irritated areas.
  • Wear moisture-wicking socks to protect your feet from blisters.
  • Ensure that shoes fit properly.
  • Provide safety equipment to children for physical activities, for example use knee pads and elbow pads for roller skating or riding scooters.

Burn infections

Burn and skin and soft tissue infections should be taken seriously as they can quickly progress into more serious infections or complications.  Don’t ignore the signs and symptoms.  The earlier infections are detected, the better the overall outcome.

Common signs of burn and skin and soft tissue infection are:

  • Growing redness around the wound.
  • Pain or tenderness, especially outside of the wound.
  • A change of colour in the surrounding skin or tissue.
  • Oozing.
  • Foul smell.
  • Fever.

Seek medical attention immediately.