Sunshine, fireworks and roaring bonfires!
Sound like some of your favorite things about summer vacation? They’re also among the top activities that bring patients to us at The Urgency Room. In fact, burns are one of the most common injuries we see, especially during the summer months. Fortunately, these injuries are preventable.
Sunshine and Sunburns
Ahh… we all love the warmth of a Minnesota summer, especially after our long winter. It feels so good you might wonder, what could be more natural than sun light? The truth is, sunburns happen fast and are not only painful and dangerous, but can also set you up for future health problems.
Our white Minnesota skin, deprived of summer sun for many months, is very susceptible to burning and to forming skin cancers. The summer sun is strong and has the ability to burn skin in just minutes, even on a cloudy day. In addition, there are many common photo-sensitizing drugs (antihistamines, antibiotics, chemotherapy, cardiac drugs, and even many fragrances) that can cause your skin to be more susceptible to damage from the sun’s rays.
Make sure you use a sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher. You should use 1-2 ounces of sunscreen (30-60 ml) for your full body and don’t rush when you put it on because you will miss spots and surely pay for it later. You should apply the sunscreen a half hour before initial exposure and then every 30 minutes thereafter. Don’t listen to claims that your sunscreen is “waterproof” or will “last all day.” Always re-apply every 30 minutes.
According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), nearly 10,000, Americans suffer firework related injuries ever year and nearly half of those injured are children. Most of these injuries occur during what is referred to as the “high season” of fireworks, from June 19 to July 19.
Sparklers are the top firework offender and what many consider the most innocent. But, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the tip of a firework or sparkler can burn as hot as 1,200 degrees – hotter than boiling water. Bottle rockets are also a major cause of firework-related visits to the ER.
The most common injuries we see resulting from fireworks are eye damage, burns to the body and face, poisoning from children ingesting materials, and hand and foot wounds.
If the burn is not deep and smaller than the size of your palm it is possible to be treated at home. However, if the burn is on your face, genitals or major joints, you should see a doctor. You’ll also need to determine the type of burn:
• Superficial or first-degree burns result in reddened skin without blisters. These types of burns can be treated at home.
• Partial thickness or second-degree burns cause reddened skin with blisters. It’s best to have a doctor assess this type of burn.
• Full-thickness or third-degree burns are characterized by white or charred skin. The area loses sensation to pain and touch. This type of burn often needs a skin graft to prevent bad scarring. Again, the level of care depends on the size and location of the burn. If you are unsure, check with your doctor. Before coming in, cover the burn with a sterile dressing or clean washcloth or towel.
While enjoyable, bonfires are also a source of serious burn injuries. The first and most important step to treating minor and serious burns is simple: cool it down.
If you’re at home, run the injury under cold tap water. If you’re out enjoying a bonfire at an event, pour a soft drink or any cold beverage over the burn. The key thing is to act quickly because when you get burned your skin literally starts to cook. Speedy action with cold water reduces pain, swelling and the risk of scarring.
Here are a few other tips for treating a burn injury:
• Loosely cover the burn with cling film or a clean plastic bag. This helps prevent infection by keeping the area clean.
• Never put butter or oil on a burn. It will only make the injury worse and it’ll probably be very painful to remove.
• Burnt fingers can quickly swell, so remove all jewelry to prevent restricted blood flow. You don’t want our doctors to have to cut off your favorite ring.
• Always seek medical advice if you are unsure about the severity of a burn, especially for burns on children.
Dr. Kurt Belk is medical director of The Urgency Room.