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What You Need To Know About Steam Burns

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When it comes to first aid at home, there are few problems that are as nasty as burns. For burns that aren’t severe or large, most people don’t seek any kind of professional medical help and opt to treat them themselves. Unfortunately, there is a lot of information out there that can harm more than help someone with a minor burn. Steam burns can be particularly tricky too because most people don’t think that they are anything serious and sometimes steam burns will not present any symptoms or show signs of damage until later when the problem becomes more serious.

Steam burns are common for those working in the kitchen, anyone working around pipes that carry steam and even for firefighters as their protective clothing can cause their sweat to evaporate into steam and hurt the skin. Because of the nature of steam, a steam burn can be even more damaging than a burn from boiling water – even if both are at the same temperature. The reason is because the steam is able to penetrate the epidermis, the top layer of your skin, and reach the bottom layers and when that steam starts cooling off and turns back into liquid it also releases more energy. This release of energy causes instant second-degree burns underneath the top layer of your skin and you might not even know about it initially.

Scientists are just now starting to understand the effects of steam burns as the mechanism was more or less a mystery until recently. The researchers in Empa’s Biomimetic Membranes and Textiles department showed that the reason the steam penetrates through the epidermis is because the pores of your skin are large enough to allow water molecules to pass through. It is only when the epidermis is swollen to capacity with water that the pores become too small to allow anymore water molecules to pass. The studies were carried out on pig skin, which is similar in composition to human skin, and each of the different skin layers was examined with Raman spectroscopy, an analytical method that allows the researchers to draw conclusions about material properties through the scattering of light.

The study concluded that the lower levels of the skin, from the surface, indeed experienced more damage with steam burns because the energy of the steam was released directly there instead of on the epidermis. Steam penetrates the epidermis deeper and faster than application of dry heat alone. The water content of all skin layers increased within the first 15 seconds in the study, meaning that the water vapor of the steam penetrated all layers.

Another problem with steam burns is presented in the dealing of the burn after the fact. Most people think that running the area under cool water for a minute or two should suffice, but in fact the energy being released from the steam continues to be released for at about 10 to 15 minutes. This means that the area needs to be kept under cool water or a cool compress for the duration of that time to help avoid any damage to the dermis layers of the skin. The skin is a poor conductor so the cooling method is absolutely necessary for the skin to not become damaged.

Here are some first aid steps that you should take whenever a steam burn occurs to minimize damage:

  • First things first, stop the burning. Most people instinctively snatch their hands or body away from steam since it usually creates a burning sensation but sometimes the burn may not be as obvious. Those working with pipes or firefighters, for instance, might not even realize that they’re getting a steam burn until later when the evidence shows up. If you’re in a situation that involves steam, be watchful and steer clear.
  • Cool the burnt area for at least 10 minutes under running cool water. A cool compress may also be used, but be very gently. Don’t use ice or an ice pack as ice can also cause burns and may just exacerbate the problem further. Using ice can also potentially lower your body temperature, if the affected area is large enough, and can cause shock in the body.
  • Once the area is cooled, protecting the burn becomes the next important step. Make sure to choose a sterile, non-adhesive bandage as you don’t want to be peeling or ripping it off when it needs to be changed. Also ‘home-remedies’ such as applying eggs, butter, salt, ointments or any other liquids should be steered clear of as none of these have been scientifically shown to help and may even cause further problems such as infection. The only exception to this might be honey, as it has anti-infectious and anti-inflammatory properties that are very beneficial to burn wounds. Also, avoid coughing or sneezing on the wound as this may release bacteria or germs on the wound and cause infection.
  • Initially, steam burns may not hurt but they will almost always sting in a few minutes after they happen (unless the area is small enough). Taking a pain reliever can help you deal with this and applying honey topically, very gently, can also help with the pain.
  • Lastly, if the burn starts to look worse, hasn’t lessened in pain in a few day, starts to have pus or a discharge or has a foul odor then it is time to seek professional help. Burn wounds can become infected if not treated properly or if it comes into contact with germs or bacteria and dealing with an infection should be left up to a medical professional.

Steam burns can be quite nasty and many people write them off as nothing serious. Unfortunately, steam burns have now been proven to be even more damaging to the skin than a regular burn with boiling water or dry heat is. This is because steam penetrates the top layer of the skin, the epidermis, and releases its energy directly onto the lower layer, the dermis, which is more sensitive than the top layer. This causes much damage to the skin and can lead to more aggravating and serious conditions such as permanent scarring, infections and even toxic shock syndrome or sepsis which are fatal if left untreated. First aid for steam burns should include cooling the area for at least 10 to 15 minutes under cool running water with cool compress and protecting it from other elements by wrapping with sterile, non-adhesive cloth. Now that you know what a steam burn is and how to treat it, make sure you put these practices into effect next time the problem arises.

 

References:

www.scienceline.ucsb.edu

www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

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