Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Burn Treatment Basics

Fire is what separates us from the animals. It lets us cook food, stay warm without fur (no matter what my beard may lead you to believe), light the darkness, and perform countless other tasks. But with the ability to heat things comes the risk of burns, and that risk brings the need to be able to treat those burns to prevent serious, lasting harm.

I got a pretty decent first degree burn on a recent outing; a BSA Scoutmaster who was with us saw me treating it, and commented that it looked like good Boy Scout medicine. I acknowledged that yes, that was exactly where I had learned the skill. It dawned on me since then that a significant number of our readers didn't have that same experience growing up, and could benefit from a quick review.

(Nota bene: This is for minor burns only, first and very light second degree. Burns over large portions of the body, or significant second degree or any third degree burns require immediate, specialized medical treatment. If you have that kind of injury, make haste to the nearest emergency department.)

  1. Remove whatever is causing the burning. Get anything hot off the skin and away from the body. Usually this is an instinctive act, a reaction to get the hurting thing away, but it needs to be said in the rare case that the heat source lingers.
  2. Remove the heat that was imparted to the body during the burning. Cool (not cold) running water is the very best way to do this. 
    • Be sure not to use cold water! While it may seem logical to apply as much cold as possible to counteract the heat, this can actually shock the body and cause more harm. Tepid water is a much gentler way to cool the area, and works almost as quickly.
    • If running water isn't available, cool wet cloths will work. For my burn, we used a couple clean rags that we wetted with a water bottle. It took 20-30 minutes to completely cool the area, but I felt relief from the burning sensation immediately.
  3. Apply a burn relief cream or ointment. Aloe vera is by far the most popular of these in my part of the world, but a wide variety of alternatives exist. They feature various combinations of curatives, including antiseptic, analgesic, and moisturizing elements, intended to soothe pain and speed healing. Find the combination that works for you and run with it.
    • Do not apply ointments or creams before the burn has been cooled! They can trap heat, prolonging and worsening the burn. Just use water until the skin is cool to the touch.

In my particular case, I was both an excellent and terrible Scout. I knew exactly what I needed to do, and I stayed calm and collected. I didn't have water or rags immediately at hand, but I grabbed a can of soda from my cooler (not iced, but cool from a night in the refrigerator) and rolled it across the burned area while I located a friend with the supplies I needed. I didn't have any burn cream in my bag, but knew where to find a big first aid kit that did. (My first aid kit is constantly evolving, as yours should be. It has historically been tuned for major trauma, but is slowly evolving to handle "urgencies"as well as "emergencies.") The end results were some worthwhile lessons learned, some new action plans put into place, and no evidence of a burn within 4 hours.

Burns hurt. You can make the hurting stop.


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