How Are Third Degree Burns Treated in the Hospital?

A third degree burn is too serious to treat at home.  If you or one of your loved ones ever sustains a third degree burn, you should call 9-1-1 immediately for medical care.  Without intervention, third degree burns can be fatal.  However, seeking prompt treatment improves the victim’s odds of survival and successful recovery.  It is also important to seek immediate care in order to maximize the likelihood of recovering compensation from the party who caused the injury.  In this article, Salt Lake City burn injury lawyer Darwin Overson explains how third degree burns are treated, and what to expect on the road to recovery.

What Happens When You Go to the Hospital for a Severe Burn Injury?

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If you or a family member ever suffers a third degree burn, call 9-1-1 right away.  You need to get to a hospital as soon as possible, even if the burn is small.  This will minimize the risk of infection, improper healing, or wrongful death.

While skin graft surgery will be needed eventually, as the next section explains in detail, other, more urgent medical needs must be addressed first.  Every burn unit follows slightly different protocols, but you can get a general idea of what to expect upon hospital admission by looking at the initial treatment procedures the University of Utah Health Care Burn Center follows.  These procedures include:

  • Making sure the patient’s breathing is stabilized.
  • Inserting an IV to ensure the patient stays hydrated. IVs (which are really called intravenous catheters) can also be used to administer medication.
  • Attaching electrodes to the patient in order to monitor his or her heart rate.
  • Inserting a Foley catheter into the bladder. This allows doctors to monitor the rate at which the patient is excreting urine, which in turn allows for accurate adjustments to IV fluids.
  • Inserting a nasogastric tube, which is fed into the stomach (-gastric) through the nose (naso-). Severe burns initially affect the way the stomach functions, which can cause nausea.  The purpose of the nasogastric tube is to prevent vomiting by draining the stomach.  Since the patient will need extra calories and nutrition after several days, a device called a Dobhoff tube will be inserted through the nose into the intestines, where it can deliver large doses of vitamins and nutrients.
  • Using fans or blankets as necessary to control body temperature, which the patient will not be able to regulate due to skin damage.
  • Administering pain medication as necessary and appropriate.

Do Third Degree Burns Need Skin Grafting?

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Skin grafts have used since the mid-nineteenth century, but obviously, have become more sophisticated since their medical debut.  While not necessary for first degree burns or minor second degree burns, skin grafting is a vital component of the recovery process for the victims of deep second degree burns, and third degree burns of all types.

If the burned area is small, it may be covered using a sheet graft, which is a flap of donor skin attached to the wound using stitches or staples.  The sheet graft will begin to flush after about five days, indicating proper blood circulation.

A larger burn, such as a burn that covers the victim’s chest or upper back, may require a mesh graft.  Mesh grafts initially have a pronounced diamond pattern, which gradually fades to match the recipient’s original skin.  The skin to make grafts is removed using a surgical tool called a dermatome, which shaves off extremely thin slices of tissue for use in transplants.

Ideally, the graft would come from the burn victim’s own body — typically the buttocks or upper thighs — which minimizes the risk of rejection.  A graft that comes from your own skin is called an autograft.  If it is not possible to fashion a viable autograft, doctors may instead use:

  • Allografts/Homografts — Human skin harvested from an organ donor.
  • Cultured Epithelial Autografts (CEA) — Synthetic skin grown in a lab using your own cells.
  • Xenografts — Skin harvested from animals, often pigs.

Skin Graft Surgery: Preparation, Anesthesia, and Healing Time

Though vital, skin grafting is not performed immediately.  On the contrary, the procedure is generally scheduled to take place several weeks after the burn.  Patients must refrain from eating or drinking on the date of the procedure, because there is a life-threatening risk of accidentally aspirating and choking on vomit if anesthesia makes you nauseous, as it does for some people.

Depending on the size and location of the burned area, you will either be sedated or given local anesthesia before the surgery.  If the graft is small, you might be back home from the hospital in a matter of hours.  If it is large, your doctors may want to keep you in the hospital for up to 10 days in order to observe your progress and make sure nothing goes wrong.

It’s normal to feel sore and uncomfortable for one or two weeks, but make sure you keep your doctor up to date with any unusual observations.  Swelling, fever, flu-like symptoms, and weight fluctuations are all warning signs that your body may be rejecting the graft, in which case additional surgeries will be necessary.

The path to recovery can be long and arduous for the victim of a third degree burn.  In addition to skin grafting, he or she may benefit from:

  • A specialized diet rich in vitamins, proteins, and calories, which need to be replenished while the body works overtime to heal itself.
  • Counseling or therapy, if he or she experiences depression due to a dramatic change in appearance.
  • Painkiller medications, which should only be taken under a physician’s direction to reduce the risk of addiction.
  • Physical therapy, if the burn affects the patient’s ability to walk, grasp items, bend or rotate joints, etc.

Let a Skilled Utah Attorney Handle Your Case

If you or one of your family members suffered a second or third degree burn in Utah, the person who caused the injury may be liable for your medical expenses.  Call the law offices of Overson Law at (801) 895-3143 to talk about compensation for your burn injury claim in a free legal consultation.  We handle burns resulting from car accidents, defective products, motorcycle accidents, and other causes.


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