The Most Common Causes of Burn Injuries

Heat, chemicals, electricity, sunlight, or radiation can damage your body’s tissues, resulting in a burn. An estimated 450,000 Americans suffered from burns in 2013, according to data from the American Burn Association. These injuries resulted in 40,000 hospitalizations and hundreds of fatalities.

Hot liquids, steam, building fires, and flammable liquids and gases make up the largest percentage of burn injuries. Fire causes 44% of all burns, followed by scalds at 33%, hot objects at 9%, electricity at 4%, and chemicals at 3%. Almost 70% of all burn injuries occur at home or at work.

Burns fall into several categories, depending on the type of exposure.

These Categories include:

  • Thermal (heat) burns: caused by steam, fire, hot objects, or hot liquids. Scalding burns from hot liquids are the most common burns affecting children and older adults.
  • Cold temperature burns: caused by exposure to wet, cold, or windy conditions.
  • Electrical burns: caused by contact with lightning or electrical sources.
  • Chemical burns: caused by contact with household or industrial chemicals (in a liquid, solid, or gas form); can also be caused by natural products like chili peppers, which irritate the skin and cause a burning sensation.
  • Radiation burns: caused by the sun, tanning booths, X-rays, sunlamps, or radiation therapy used in cancer treatment
  • Friction burns: caused by contact with a hard surface, including roads (road rash), carpets or gym floors. Friction burns usually involve both an abrasion and a heat burn.

Burns caused by house fires or other smoky incidents can carry an added danger of smoke inhalation. Breathing in toxic gases like those
released in a fire can injure your lungs and cause poisoning.

Burns can cause swelling, blistering, scarring, and even shock or death if the burn is severe enough. The severity of the burn depends on several factors, including depth, size, body area, and the age and health of the victim. Younger (10 and under) and older (65+) adults are at the most risk for burns, particularly from hot liquids.

Burns are categorized according to their severity, and the types of burns are:

  • First-degree: burns that damage only the outer layer of skin, usually accompanied by redness, swelling, and sometimes pain
  • Second-degree: burns that damage the outer layer and the layer underneath (dermis), usually accompanied by blisters, intensely reddened and splotchy skin, and severe pain and swelling
  • Third-degree: burns that damage or destroy the deepest layer of skin and tissues underneath, including fat, muscle, and sometimes bone; affected areas may be charred black or appear dry and white, often accompanied by difficulty breathing or carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Fourth-degree: rare burns that extend through the skin to injure muscle, ligaments, tendons, nerves, blood vessels, and bones.

A large number of accidental burns are preventable. Burn prevention programs like the Burn Prevention Network and U.S. Fire Administration have contributed to a significant decrease in serious burns over the years, and simple safety measures will continue to contribute to this decline.

To minimize the risk of burns, try to limit hot water temperatures, make sure sprinkler systems and smoke alarms are functioning properly, test bath water temperatures for children, and be cautious around hot liquids on the stove.