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Helping someone with severe burns

Most people have had a first- or second-degree burn, but severe burns can damage much more than the skin. They are often life-threatening emergencies.

Medline Plus provides this information about severe burn injuries.

When to seek emergency medical treatment

Chemical and electrical burns should always receive immediate medical attention. If the skin around any burn is white, blackened or numb, it is likely a third-degree burn that needs emergency treatment. Burn victims should not hesitate to seek medical care if the skin swells or blisters and covers 3 inches or more of skin, covers a major joint, or is on the face, hands, feet, buttocks or groin. 

Sometimes the burn damage is internal. Symptoms of damaged airways include the following:

  • Head or facial burns
  • Lip and mouth burns
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  • Cough
  • Voice changes
  • Dark mucus

If the burn victim shows signs of shock such as blue lips and fingernails, lack of alertness, pale and clammy skin or weakness, someone should call 911.

What to do for a severe burn victim

Putting out fire and getting the person away from any materials that may cause further burns is the first step. However, burned clothing may stick to the skin, so removing it may be dangerous. Next is contacting emergency services. 

Once professional help is on the way, what assistance the victim needs varies widely depending on the circumstances. For example, raising the burned body part above the level of the heart could be beneficial, or it could cause serious harm if the person has another wound, if an electrical injury caused the burn or if there may be an airway burn. Raising the person’s head may close the airway or cause brain, neck or back injuries to worsen. Anyone seeking to help the victim should assess whether any of these or other factors may cause further complications.

The skin protects the body and maintains its internal temperature, so hyperthermia and shock are common reactions. Preventing shock involves laying the victim flat, raising the feet around 12 inches and then covering him or her with a coat or blanket. Someone should monitor the victim’s breathing, pulse rate and blood pressure while waiting for medical professionals to arrive.