Pain caused by burns

Pain resulting from burn injuries can be challenging to treat because burns differ in their types and severity. There are three types of burns:

  • First-degree burns are considered mild compared to other burns. They result in pain and reddening of the epidermis (outer layer of the skin).
  • Second-degree burns affect the epidermis and the dermis (lower layer of skin). They cause pain, redness, swelling, and blistering.
  • Third-degree burns go through the dermis and affect deeper tissues. They result in white or blackened, charred skin that might be numb.

What causes burns?

Dry heat (such as fire), wet heat (such as steam or hot liquids), radiation, friction, heated objects, the sun, electricity, and chemicals can cause burns.

Thermal burns are the most common type of burns. These burns occur when flames, hot metals, scalding liquids, or steam come in contact with the skin. These burns can result from many different circumstances including house fires, vehicle accidents, kitchen accidents, and electrical malfunctions.

What are the symptoms of burns?

  • Blisters
  • Pain — The degree of pain is not related to the severity of the burn as the most serious burns can be painless.
  • Peeling skin
  • Red skin
  • Shock — Symptoms of shock include pale and clammy skin, weakness, bluish lips and fingernails, and a drop in alertness.
  • Swelling
  • White or charred skin
  • Heart rhythm disturbances following electrical injury

Treatment of burns

The treatment of a burn depends on the type of burn. However, all burns must be kept clean and adequate dressing should be applied based on severity of wounds. Pain management is very important as inadequate control can interfere with wound care. It is also important to reassess wounds for signs of infection and other long term issues, such as scarring and tightening of the skin over joints and muscles making them difficult to move.

First-degree burns might be treated with skin care products such as aloe vera cream or an antibiotic ointment. A dry gauze bandage over the skin will protect the burned area. A pain medicine such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) can ease the pain of a burn.

Second-degree burns might be treated with an antibiotic cream, or other creams or ointments prescribed by a doctor.

The treatment of third-degree burns might require the process of skin grafting or the use of synthetic skin. Severe burns covering large parts of the body might need more intensive treatments such as I.V. antibiotics to prevent infection or I.V. fluids to replace fluids lost when the skin was burned.

Management of burn pain

Burn pain can be one of the most intense and prolonged types of pain. Burn pain is difficult to control because of its unique characteristics, its changing patterns, and its various components. In addition, there is pain involved in the treatment of burns as the wounds must be cleansed and the dressings changed. Studies have concluded that the management of burn pain can be inadequate, and such studies have advocated more aggressive treatments for pain resulting from burns. Lastly, some burns can be mentally traumatic and/or physically disfiguring and lead to psychological pain that must be addressed, as well.


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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 2/13/2013...#12063