What is a burn?
A burn is tissue damage caused by heat, chemicals, electricity,
sunlight or nuclear radiation. The most common burns are those
caused by scalds, building fires and flammable liquids and
- First-degree burns affect only the outer layer (the epidermis)
of the skin.
- Second-degree burns damage the epidermis and the layer beneath
it (the dermis).
- Third-degree burns involve damage or complete destruction of
the skin to its full depth and damage to underlying tissues.
How does the body react to a severe burn?
The swelling and blistering characteristic of burns is caused by
the loss of fluid from damaged blood vessels. In severe cases, such
fluid loss can cause shock. Burns often lead to infection, due to
damage to the skin's protective barrier.
How are burns treated?
In many cases, topical antibiotics (skin creams or ointments)
are used to prevent infection. For third-degree burns and some
second-degree ones, immediate blood transfusion and/or extra fluids
are needed to maintain blood pressure. Grafting with natural or
artificial materials speeds the post-burn healing process.
What is skin grafting?
There are two types of skin grafts. An autologous skin graft
transfers skin from one part of the body to another while an
allograft transfers skin from another person, sometimes even a
cadaver. Scientists typically take cells from the epidermal layer
of skin and then grow them into large sheets of cells in the
laboratory. They do not yet know how to grow the lower, dermal
layer of skin in the lab. For this reason, surgeons, after removing
burned skin, first cover the area with an artificial material and
then add the cell sheets on top. This procedure helps encourage the
growth of new skin.
What is the prognosis for severe burn
A few decades ago, burns covering half the body were often
fatal. Now, thanks to research, many people with burns covering 90
percent of their bodies can survive, although they often have
permanent impairments and scars.
Where are people treated for burns?
Over half of burn patients in the United States are treated in
specialized burn centers, and most hospitals have trauma teams that
care exclusively for patients with traumatic injuries that may
How has basic research improved burn care?
Remarkable improvements in burn care have resulted from basic
research funded by the National Institutes of Health. The results
have led to the best approaches for fluid resuscitation, wound
cleaning, skin replacement, infection control and nutritional
What is on the horizon for burn research?
Improving methods for wound healing and tissue repair offer
tremendous opportunities to enhance the quality of life for burn
patients and may also help to reduce health care costs.
What kinds of burn research does the National Institute
of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) support?
NIGMS funds research that explores clinical issues involving
whole-body responses to burns, and various aspects of the recovery
process, such as wound healing and tissue repair. An important goal
of this research is to apply basic knowledge to reducing or even
preventing complications after injury. NIGMS also supports research
on established clinical practices that, in many cases, have arisen
as a result of anecdotal evidence rather than rigorous,
Where can I find more information about
- The Alisa Ann
Ruch Burn Foundation is a nonprofit health organization
dedicated to burn prevention and survivor assistance.
- The American Burn Association is a nonprofit health association
dedicated to addressing the problems of burn injuries and burn
survivors throughout the United States, Canada and other countries.
- MEDLINEplus Health Topics: Burns is an NIH National
Library of Medicine Web site containing information and links about
burns and burn research.
- The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors is an international, nonprofit
organization helping burn survivors and their families.
- Shriners Hospitals for Children is a nationwide network of hospitals
that provide no-cost orthopedic and burn care to children under 18
years of age, regardless of financial need.
- World Burn Foundation is an online resource providing
information and support for burn survivors and family members.
NIGMS is a part of the National Institutes of Health that
supports basic research to increase our understanding of biological processes and lay the foundation for advances in disease diagnosis,
treatment and prevention. For more information on the Institute's
research and training programs, see http://www.nigms.nih.gov.
Content reviewed November 2012