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A burn is an injury to the skin or other organic tissue primarily caused by heat or due to radiation, radioactivity, electricity, friction or contact with chemicals.

  • They range from minor to severe, and while serious burns can be life-threatening, any burn that causes a break in the skin can result in an infection, which can lead to sepsis.


Thermal (heat) burns occur when some or all of the cells in the skin or other tissues are destroyed by:

  • hot liquids (scalds)
  • hot solids (contact burns), or
  • flames (flame burns).

Burns are categorized according to their severity:

  • First degree burns: These are the types of burns that most people experience at some time. They are minor burns that affect just the outer later of skin, called the epidermis. They can be painful, causing redness to the skin and some swelling. Mild sunburns are a common type of first degree burn.
  • Second degree burns: These burns are deeper than first degree burns, affecting the epidermis and the second layer of the skin, called the dermis.
    • If the burn is small, less than two to three inches wide, it is considered minor, but larger second degree burns are treated as major burns.
    • Second degree burns are also considered to be major if they are on the face, hands, feet, a major joint, groin/genitals, or buttocks.
    • Second degree burns are usually painful and cause redness and swelling. They may cause blistering and breaks in the skin, so the increase your risk of developing an infection. Sunburns that blister and are very painful are considered to be second degree burns.
  • Third-degree burns: These are serious burns, even if they are small and can be life-threatening. These burns go through the layers of the skin to the fat below. There may be no pain in the area, because the nerves may be destroyed, although there will likely be pain around the area, where the burns are not as deep.
    • People with third degree burns are at particular risk for dehydration, infection, and sepsis.

Burns on the face, regardless of the severity, may also cause internal burns in the airway, which can be life threatening. Facial burns can happen as part of a larger burn, but the face can get burned if you are too close to the flame when you light a barbecue or pilot light, or even if you suddenly release steam from a pot, for example.

According to the American Burn Association (ABA), there are roughly 3,400 US burn injury death cases each year.

  • Burn injury death is often caused by burn complications, such as shock, organ failure, respiratory problems or infection.
  • The majority of burn injury death cases result from arising complications, not the burn injury itself.
    • Shock, a common cause, typically occurs within a week of the incident. It may cause hypovolemia, or low blood volume due te to damaged blood vessels. It may also occur as a result of sepsis, which is a bodily response to burn infection.
    • Infection is one of the leading causes of burn injury death and complications, because the skin plays a vital role in protecting the body from airborne bacteria, fungi, and other pathogens.
      • Infection may also occur during treatment, such as pneumonia from breathing tubes or urinary tract infections from bladder catheters.
      • Pulmonary infection and septicemia are the main causes of death.
    • Other burn complications leading to death include respiratory failure, anoxic brain injury due to lack of oxygen and hypothermia, or dangerously low body temperature.

Risk factors

  • Females have slightly higher rates of death from burns compared to males according to the most recent data (2018). The higher risk for females is associated with open fire cooking, or inherently unsafe cookstoves, which can ignite loose clothing.
  • Children under 5 years of age in the WHO African Region have over 2 times the incidence of burn deaths than children under 5 years of age worldwide.
  • Boys under 5 years of age living in low- and middle-income countries of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region are almost 2 times as likely to die from burns as boys living in the WHO European Region.
  • The incidence of burn injuries requiring medical care is nearly 20 times higher in the WHO Western Pacific Region than in the WHO Region of the Americas.
  • People living in low- and middle-income countries are at higher risk for burns than people living in high-income countries.
  • Occupations that increase exposure to fire;
  • Poverty, overcrowding and lack of proper safety measures;
  • Placement of young girls in household roles such as cooking and care of small children;
  • Underlying medical conditions, including epilepsy, peripheral neuropathy, and physical and cognitive disabilities;
  • Alcohol abuse and smoking;
  • Easy access to chemicals used for assault (such as in acid violence attacks);
  • Use of kerosene (paraffin) as a fuel source for non-electric domestic appliances;
  • Inadequate safety measures for liquefied petroleum gas and electricity.

Statistics & mortality:

From WHO fact sheet no. 365, updated April 2014

  • Key Facts
    • An estimated 265,000 deaths every year are caused by burns
    • Non fatal burn injuries are a key cause of morbidity
    • Burns occur mainly in the home and workplace
    • Burns are preventable
  • Burns are a global public health problem, accounting for an estimated 180 000 deaths annually. The majority of these occur in low- and middle-income countries and almost two thirds occur in the WHO African and South-East Asia regions.
  • Severe thermal injury is characterized by profound morbidity and mortality.
  • The rate of child deaths from burns is currently over 7 times higher in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.
  • In India, over 1 000 000 people are moderately or severely burnt every year.
  • Nearly 173 000 Bangladeshi children are moderately or severely burnt every year.
  • In Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt and Pakistan, 17% of children with burns have a temporary disability and 18% have a permanent disability.
  • Burns are the second most common injury in rural Nepal, accounting for 5% of disabilities.
  • In 2008, over 410 000 burn injuries occurred in the United States of America, with approximately 40 000 requiring hospitalization.
  • Burns are the fifth most common cause of non-fatal childhood injuries.

Famous/Notables who died from burns

  1. Ranker - Famous People Who Died by Burning (8 people listed)

Resources & additional reading

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