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Classification of burns

Phillip L Rice, Jr, MD
Dennis P Orgill, MD, PhD
Section Editor
Marc G Jeschke, MD, PhD
Deputy Editor
Kathryn A Collins, MD, PhD, FACS


A burn is defined as a traumatic injury to the skin or other organic tissue primarily caused by thermal or other acute exposures. Burns occur when some or all of the cells in the skin or other tissues are destroyed by heat, cold, electricity, radiation, or caustic chemicals. Burns are acute wounds caused by an isolated, non-recurring insult and progress rapidly through an orderly series of healing steps [1].

The most common types of burns and their classification will be reviewed here. The clinical assessment, potential acute complications, and management of moderate and severe burns in adults and children, minor burns, and other related injuries are discussed elsewhere. (See "Emergency care of moderate and severe thermal burns in adults" and "Emergency care of moderate and severe thermal burns in children" and "Treatment of minor thermal burns" and "Environmental and weapon-related electrical injuries" and "Inhalation injury from heat, smoke, or chemical irritants".)


The most common type of burn in children is from a scald injury; in adults, the most common burn occurs from a flame. The following is a list of the types of burns that may be incurred by adults and children.

Thermal — The depth of the burn injury is related to contact temperature, duration of contact of the external heat source, and the thickness of the skin. Because the thermal conductivity of skin is low, most thermal burns involve the epidermis and part of the dermis [2]. The most common thermal burns are associated with flames, hot liquids, hot solid objects, and steam. The depth of the burn largely determines the healing potential and the need for surgical grafting. (See "Emergency care of moderate and severe thermal burns in adults".)

Cold exposure (frostbite) — Damage occurs to the skin and underlying tissues when ice crystals puncture the cells or when they create a hypertonic tissue environment. Blood flow can be interrupted, causing hemoconcentration and intravascular thrombosis with tissue hypoxia. (See "Frostbite".)


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Literature review current through: Jul 2017. | This topic last updated: Aug 11, 2016.
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