Complications - Burns and scalds

Burns and scalds can sometimes lead to further problems, including shock, heat exhaustion, infection and scarring.

Shock

After a serious injury, it's possible to go into shock. Shock is a life-threatening condition that occurs when there's an insufficient supply of oxygen to the body.

It's possible to go into shock after a serious burn.

Signs and symptoms of shock include:

  • a pale face
  • cold or clammy skin
  • a rapid pulse
  • fast, shallow breathing
  • yawning
  • unconsciousness

Dial 999 and ask for an ambulance if you think someone who's been seriously injured is going into shock.

While you wait for the ambulance:

  • lay the person down (if their injuries allow it) and raise and support their legs
  • use a coat or blanket to keep them warm, but do not cover their face or the burnt area
  • do not give them anything to eat or drink

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are 2 heat-related health conditions that happen when the temperature inside your body rises to 37 to 40C or above.

Both heat exhaustion and heatstroke can be very serious. They're often caused by being exposed to too much sunlight or heat.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke include:

  • extreme tiredness and lack of energy
  • dizziness or fainting
  • feeling sick or vomiting
  • rapid pulse
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • irritability
  • confusion

If a person with heat exhaustion is taken quickly to a cool place, given water to drink and has their clothing loosened, they should start to feel better within half an hour.

If they don't, they could develop heatstroke. This is a medical emergency and you'll need to call 999 for an ambulance.

Read more about what to do if someone has heat exhaustion or heatstroke.

Infection

Wounds can become infected if bacteria get into them. If your burn or scald has a blister that's burst, it may become infected if it's not kept clean.

Seek medical attention for any burn that causes a blister.

Your wound may be infected if:

  • it's uncomfortable, painful or smelly
  • you have a high temperature of 38C or higher 
  • you have signs of cellulitis, a bacterial infection that causes redness and swelling of the skin

Seek immediate medical attention if you think your burn has become infected. An infection can usually be treated with antibiotics and painkilling medication, if necessary.

In rare cases, an infected burn can cause blood poisoning (sepsis) or toxic shock syndrome. These serious conditions can be fatal if not treated.

Signs of sepsis and toxic shock syndrome include:

  • a high temperature
  • dizziness
  • vomiting

Scarring

scar is a patch or line of tissue that remains after a wound has healed. Most minor burns only leave minimal scarring.

You can try to reduce the risk of scarring after the wound's healed by:

  • applying an emollient, such as aqueous cream or emulsifying ointment, 2 or 3 times a day
  • using sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) to protect the healing area from the sun when you're outside

Psychological impact

Burns and scalds, especially severe ones, can cause long-lasting distress.

After a burn or scald, some people report experiencing:

Some people recovering from a burn may also develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can cause symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, and unwanted and intrusive thoughts.

If you experience any of these emotional issues, you should speak to the staff at the burns care service.

They can arrange an appointment with a psychologist with experience of treating people recovering from burns and scalds.

Page last reviewed: 24/09/2018
Next review due: 24/09/2021