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What Is a Full-Thickness Burn Injury?

Full-thickness burns — or third-degree burns — are burns that damage or even destroy both layers of skin, including the hair follicles, sweat glands, as well as damage the underlying tissue. Burns serious enough to require treatment injure one person each minute in the United States, and children and older adults are especially vulnerable to some kinds of burn injuries. Severe burns require urgent medical attention, and they can be life-threatening. Read on to start educating yourself about full-thickness burns — and learn when you might consider bringing your questions to a consultation with a burn injury lawyer.

How Is Full-Thickness Burn Different From Other Kinds of Burns?

Full-thickness burns are different from other types of burns primarily in their impact on the injured person and the extent of medical treatment needed for healing. Before one can understand the differences, it is important to understand that full-thickness burns, like all burns, are injuries that happen when tissue is damaged, usually from contact with heat or even chemicals. There are four types of burns:

  1. First-degree burns. Relatively common and mild compared to other burns, first-degree burns damage the outer layer of skin, called the epidermis. These burns are painful and result in redness of the skin, like a sunburn. Although they are relatively minor, they can still be dangerous.
  2. Second-degree burns. When both the epidermis and the dermis, or the layer beneath the epidermis, are damaged, this is called a second-degree burn. These burns are more painful than first-degree burns and often result in redness as well as blistering, and swelling.
  3. Third-degree burns. Full-thickness burns are called such because they damage, and often destroy, both layers of skin as well as the tissue underneath. These burns are always emergencies, and they can cause excruciating pain. In some areas of injury, however, there may be numbness. This happens when the damage is so significant that the nerves themselves are damaged.
  4. Fourth-degree burns. Unfamiliar to many people, a fourth-degree burn is when the burns are so severe that even the fat, muscles, and bones beneath the body’s tissues and layers of skin are also damaged. People with fourth-degree burns will have no feeling in the injured area due to the catastrophic damage to their nerve endings.

Superficial burns, as first-degree burns are called, resolve themselves within 3 to 5 days. Mild sunburns, for example, fall into this category. Sunburns are a serious health issue — the Department of Health and Human Services reporting that a third of adults experience sunburns each year, with over 400,000 annual cases of skin cancer each year attributed to indoor tanning alone. While this is a serious issue that costs billions of dollars and thousands of lives each year in the U.S., a singular first-degree burn, like a sunburn, will in many cases be left behind as a painful reminder of preventive measures without life-changing consequences.

Partial-thickness burns, or second-degree burns, are the most common burns, representing 86 percent of all injuries in the Bradford Burn Study. These burns usually heal within 7 to 21 days. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends using clean dressings and antibiotic ointment on partial-thickness burns, especially if the blisters pop and ooze, to prevent infection.

Full-thickness burns are different from first- and second-degree burns, even in appearance. The skin may look white, brown, or black instead of reddened, and it may appear dry, leathery, or swollen around the area. These third- and fourth-degree burns are catastrophic injuries that require immediate medical attention and specialized care. Even then, full-thickness burns can have a mortality rate as high as 25 percent, and those who survive will have experienced a long hospitalization and be left with life-altering consequences.

In the event of a serious burn, the sooner steps can be taken to reduce the amount of damage, the better. Call 911 immediately, and try to care for seriously burned people while waiting for help to arrive. Immediate steps should include:

  • Removing the person from the source of the burn, if possible
  • Starting rescue breathing if they are not breathing on their own
  • Covering the burned areas with a clean, cool cloth
  • Raising burned areas above heart level, if possible
  • Watching for fainting, dizziness, pale skin, or shallow breathing as these can be signs of shock
  • Turning the victim on their side if they begin to vomit

In the event of a workplace injury, especially a chemical burn, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) requires first aid instructions and safety procedures to be on hand to support the treatment of burns while waiting on professional help.

What Causes Full-Thickness Wounds?

The most common cause of full-thickness burns is fire and flame, with 44 percent of patients admitted to burn centers having been injured by fire or flame. However, there are other common dangers that result in full-thickness burn injuries. These include:

  • 33 percent scalding liquid or steam injuries
  • 9 percent direct contact with a heat source
  • 4 percent electrical burns
  • 3 percent chemical burns

Somewhere in the United States, a fire department responded to a fire every 23 seconds in 2020 — that comes to an estimated 1.4 million fires. 26 percent of fires in 2020 were home fires, but these resulted in 74 percent of deaths and 76 percent of injuries. 15 percent of fires in 2020 were vehicle fires that resulted in 18 percent of deaths and 11 percent of injuries.

Car accidents are also a common cause of fire injuries. The National Fire Protection Association estimates that over 200,000 vehicle fires in 2020 caused over 630 deaths. Collisions were the leading cause of fatal vehicle fires, and large truck-involved fires were associated with the highest number of deaths.

Why Are Burns So Damaging?

Full-thickness burns can result in infection, shock, and even death. Full-thickness burns are so damaging because of the severity of the injury and the treatment required. One of the reasons that full-thickness burns are so damaging is because burn injuries that are severe enough to cause such deep injury often affect large areas of the body. In one study of over 3000 burn injuries, 87.2 percent of burns were so large they affected multiple regions of the body.

Any severe injury can be dangerous. For example, deep lacerations, like cuts and puncture wounds, can result in dangerous blood loss, and trauma to soft tissue like the spinal cord can result in a lifetime of pain or even paralysis. However, large, severe burns are dangerous not only because of the damage to the body itself but because of the body’s natural response to being injured in this way.

When people experience threats, like a virus, bacteria, toxin, or foreign material — even a paper cut — their immune systems leap into action with what is called an inflammatory response. When the body experiences a catastrophic full-thickness burn injury, it goes into overdrive to protect itself. When this immune system overreaction happens, the heart, lungs, blood vessels, kidneys, and other organ systems can begin experiencing damage. Swelling, shock, and organ failure are all risks associated with full-thickness burns.

That is not to say that the damage to the layers of skin and tissue is not dangerous. Full-thickness burns come with several risks associated with the damage and destruction to the body’s skin and organ systems. These are:

  • Sepsis. This is a serious infection that happens when bacteria get into the bloodstream.
  • Tetanus. This is a disease caused by a specific kind of bacteria entering the body through an open wound.
  • Hypovolemia. This is a dangerous loss of body fluids, such as blood.
  • Hypothermia. This is a severe drop in body temperature.
  • Bone and joint problems. These can be caused by scar tissue that develops during recovery.

To determine how damaging a burn injury is, doctors look at several factors. These include:

  • Depth of the burn
  • Percentage of the skin that is burned
  • Age of the injured person
  • Location of the burn on the body
  • Inhalation of toxic gasses or smoke
  • Cause and type of burn
  • Any other traumatic injuries
  • Existing health issues

Serious burn injuries once meant death was almost a certainty. Today, the chance of surviving when less than half the body is seriously burned is estimated at around 90 percent. However, full-thickness burns do not heal on their own, and those who survive are often left with life-altering scarring, injuries, and a long road to healing.

How Long Does It Take for Full-Thickness Burns to Heal?

Full-thickness burns virtually always require skin grafts along with treatment for infectious and non-infectious complications, unless the burn is very small. In many cases, especially if a large area is burned, this treatment often occurs in specialized burn centers.

One study published in 2018 reported an average hospital stay of 24 days for burn patients, with the length of time increasing with the thickness of the injury. Traumatic burn injuries require a variety of treatments to address the many impacts of this kind of injury. This could include:

  • Blood transfusions
  • Respiratory intubation or ventilation
  • Wound management, including surgical debridement and skin grafting
  • Adequate pain control
  • Infection control
  • Nutritional support
  • Rehabilitative therapies for joint function, mobility, and self-care
  • Specialized emotional and social support

Skin grafts are a complex procedure that is needed to replace the layers of skin damaged in a full-thickness burn. Doctors may use artificial skin, laboratory-grown skin, or skin that is taken from another place of the patient’s body. In some cases, full-thickness grafts may require the transplant of muscle tissue and blood vessels along with the skin.

Recovering from full-thickness burns may never mean returning to life as it once was. The goal for any person suffering from third-degree burns is to reach maximum independence and quality of life.

Can Burn Victims Sue?

When someone else’s negligence has caused you to suffer full-thickness burns, you may have cause for a personal injury lawsuit to recover damages. A report led by the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) found that high-severity burn claims by employees tend to come from the manufacturing and contracting industries. Even if the employer has workers’ compensation insurance, there may be other factors at play in the injury that might require legal intervention.

According to NCCI, almost 19,000 people are burned in work accidents annually. At one point, researchers estimated that the average burn TBSA — or percentage of the body burned — for those burned in motor vehicle accidents was over 30 percent. Whether your injuries were caused by a motor vehicle collision, a workplace accident, or another kind of negligence, the damages caused by burn injuries are extensive. If someone else may have been at fault, even if you are not sure, it is worth it to speak to a lawyer as soon as possible to learn about your rights and options when it comes to recovery.

How Much Can be Recovered in a Burn Lawsuit?

Extensive medical and rehabilitative care is needed to treat full-thickness burns, and the expenses add up quickly. Even before calculating the many different kinds of harms and losses suffered by someone who is badly burned, the cost of treatment can hit the six and even seven digits quickly.

Treatments for burn injuries cost upward of $10 billion each year in the United States, partially as a result of the complications that develop frequently and quickly. According to the National Business Group on Health, the treatment for the average person’s severe burn — without complications — costs an astounding $1.5 million. With complications, the estimates can top $10 million. They looked at the average additional costs associated with the five most common burn complications:

  • $28,000 to $35,000: Disfigurement, scarring, or contracture, occurring in 66 percent of cases
  • $16,000 to $75,000: Psychological complications, occurring in 57 percent of cases.
  • $38,000-107,000: Fragile skin or skin breakdown, occurring in 55 percent of cases.
  • $58,000 to $120,000: Infections, including pneumonia, sepsis, and other organ failures from infection problems, occurring in 35 percent of cases.
  • $37,000 to $110,000: Delayed wound healing or skin graft failure, occurring in 32 percent of cases.

Even if negligence is not a factor, a burn injury lawyer can help those who have been injured and their loved ones understand their rights when it comes to the mountain of medical costs they are facing. A personal injury lawyer can help you fight hospital bills, and they can help you explore options for paying.

A personal injury lawsuit can also help you recover damages other than the cost of medical bills. These factors might include:

  • Loss of earnings
  • Loss of future earnings
  • Medical bills
  • Cost of future medical care
  • Household expenses
  • Pain and suffering
  • Mental anguish
  • Loss of consortium or companionship

Consulting with an attorney can also help you when it comes to insurance settlement negotiations, estimate damages and inform you of your options, advocate for you and make sure your case is on track, and file a lawsuit if the situation calls for it.

How Can FVF Help?

Our case consultations are always at no cost to you. FVF’s goal for our initial conversation is that you feel informed enough to decide whether to proceed with your case — whether you hire us to represent you or not. FVF accepts cases only when we believe we can add substantial value to your claim, and we work on a contingency fee basis, so you always know what to expect when it comes to our fee for securing your recovery.

Contact us today to schedule your free consultation.

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Fogelman & Von Flatern is a personal injury law firm that believes it matters why we practice law: to make sure good people in unfair circumstances who want reasonable options are taken seriously, especially by their attorney. We value transparency, compassion, and justice, and we strive to embody that in our practice. At FVF, you can trust that you've got the best people on your case, for the right reasons.

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