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May 2022 Issue
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Managing burns in the backcountry

Take care around heat sources like fire or hot water and treat burns immediately to prevent further. Photo: Penzy Dinsdale

A quick response is essential to minimise further injury.

It’s easy enough to imagine: the billy is boiling for a cup of tea, but as the pot is picked up it slips and splashes hot water over arms and legs, leaving painful burns

When tramping, it’s common to be exposed to a variety of heat sources. It could be fire, a camp stove or hot liquid. Whatever the source of a burn, it’s essential to apply rapid first aid to prevent further injury as the ‘burn process’ continues in the area even after removal from the heat source.

It’s sometimes not immediately obvious that a bad burn has been sustained. Important early signs include severe pain and red skin. In severe burns, blistering, oozing and swelling can often occur later.

Burns can be serious and even become infected. Any burns involving the mouth, throat, hands, feet, face and genital areas should be assessed by a doctor. Be sure to keep the person well hydrated and warm after the injury and if awaiting evacuation. 

Here are three steps to take to manage burns in the wild.

1. Stop the burn

Remove the person from the heat source, or if clothing is wet with hot liquid remove the clothing. Do not remove clothing stuck to the burn. Take off jewellery and watches from the burned area as subsequent swelling may restrict blood flow.

2. Cool 

It would be ideal to cool the burn with running water for a minimum of 20 minutes. If there is no running water, submerge the burnt part in a container of cool water, or alternate using two pieces of damp cloth over the burn every 30 seconds. This step is essential to limit the burning process that the skin undergoes and should happen as soon as possible. 

3 Cover the burn

If you have non-stick dressings (paraffin gauze), use this to cover the burn. Clean cling film is a useful first aid item and can make a transparent, temporary non-stick dressing. Hands can be covered with a clean zip lock/plastic bag. Be careful not to restrict blood flow when wrapping the area. Do not puncture blisters or remove any peeled skin. Avoid applying any creams or ointments to the burned area as this can delay healing or cause infection.

– Dr Carmen Chan is a medical officer with qualifications in emergency, sport and exercise medicine