Burn Pictures: A Close Look at First, Second, and Third Degree

Pictures of Burns from Medical Authorities and Submitted by Readers

First-Degree Sunburn

Melanie Martinez

Everybody knows there are first, second, and third-degree burns, but not everyone knows how to identify severe burns. It's not difficult to differentiate burns if you know what to look for.

These burn pictures illustrate how a deep burn looks compared to a shallow burn. The clear line between the burned skin and the natural, unburned skin shows how red skin gets. This is a good example of a first-degree sunburn. Sunburns can certainly become second-degree burns, too.

The differences between burn degrees has to do with the depth of the burn. How much of the thickness of the skin was burned? If only the surface of the skin, the top layer, was burned, we call that a first degree. First degree burns like this one are red, irritated, and dry. They don't blister. Blistering indicates the burn got deep enough to injure the second layer of skin. When that happens, the skin layers start to separate, which leads to blistering.


Second-Degree Electrical Burn

electrical burn on hand
Image courtesy of NIOSH

This second-degree electrical burn is unique. In order to be burned by electricity, the victim has to be touching a source of electricity and complete the electrical circuit by being grounded or touching another source of electricity. In other words, you have to have at least two points of contact.

Most electrical burns are actually thermal (heat) burns from arcs—the blinding white sparks that jump across wires. Arcs generate heat at thousands of degrees Fahrenheit and burn instantly.

This electrical burn has a blister, which makes it a second-degree burn. Blisters indicate the burn is deep enough to penetrate all the way through the top layer of skin down into the second layer. When that happens, the two layers separate, making a blister.


Bow Tied Sunburn

Heather Brouhard

This sunbather obviously spent too much time on the beach. Her bathing suit bow is clearly visible and shows her natural coloring. Despite being such a severe burn, the absence of blisters indicates this hasn't yet progressed to a second-degree burn.

Burns can deepen even once the source of the burn has been removed. In other words, take the steaks off the grill a little early, because they'll keep cooking. Sunburns aren't any different, so even though you thought you got out of the sun fast enough, blisters could still develop.


Road Rash

road rash

While technically an abrasion, road rash is an example of friction burn. This one is pretty severe, but you can get friction burns from all sorts of things. We've all heard of rug burn and rope burn. Since burns are essentially just damage to the layers of skin, road rash treatment and burn treatment are very similar.


Second-Degree Burn From Glue

Second degree burn on hand
Tim Ballantine/Flickr

This victim let the industrial glue get on his hand long enough to cause some second-degree burns. The burns are classified as a second degree because of the red, raw appearance.

Second-degree burns can develop over time if not treated promptly. The trick is to stop the burning process as soon as possible with cool running water. Flush the area with water for 20 minutes to return the tissues to their normal temperature.

Remember, tissue continues to burn even after the heat source is gone, which is why you're supposed to take the steaks off the grill a little early and let them rest. If you want the skin to stop burning, you'll have to actively cool it down.


Deep Second-Degree Burn

Deep second degree burn on arm
Kathryn Harper/Flickr

Figuring out the degree of a burn depends on which degree you're trying to determine. It's easy to identify a first-degree burn: The skin is red. It's easy to identify a shallow second-degree burn: Blisters develop.

Third-degree burns are much more difficult. Oftentimes, it takes a professional burn unit to really make the call.

In this case, when an oven door sprang back up before this victim was ready, it burnt her arm pretty severely. The burn is almost crusty in this picture, which means it's pretty deep. However, in order for a burn to be considered third degree, it must be full thickness, meaning the damage has to have completely destroyed the thick layer of skin and reached the fatty tissue underneath.

There's just no way to tell that outside of a hospital. In fact, the emergency department is not likely to make that determination, either. What's more important from a practical standpoint is whether the skin is intact. Once the burn gets deep enough to blister—or worse, the top layer of skin starts falling off—it allows bacteria to enter and fluid to leak out.


Severe Hand Burn

Second degree burn on hand
Janell Petroff/Flickr

A swollen burn can put pressure on nerve cells and restrict blood flow in parts of the body that aren't even involved in the burned area. When burns go all the way around an arm or a leg, it can result in what's known as compartment syndrome.

In the worst case scenario, compartment syndrome can lead to dying tissue. Unfortunately, that is a process that perpetuates itself, because the dying tissue gives off toxins that poison the areas around it, increasing the overall damage. The process can go on long enough to kill the victim.

When emergency healthcare providers determine the severity of a burn, they look for several factors. One trigger to call a burn severe is if it reaches all the way around an arm or a leg. Another is if the burn involves the hands or feet. We worry that swelling could lead to an amputation.


Third-Degree Burn on Finger

Third degree burn on finger
Edward Russell

Even something as benign as a marshmallow can do serious damage. In this case, extra hot chocolate melted a marshmallow and got it hot enough to burn the skin all the way through, causing third-degree burns.

The victim says this picture was taken a few days after the burn happened, during the bandaging process at the doctor's office.


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