Burn Injuries and Alzheimer’s Disease

WebMD Medical Reference in Collaboration with the Cecil G. Sheps Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Logo for UNC Chapel Hill, Cecil G. Sheps Center

People with Alzheimer’s disease can sometimes burn themselves because they don’t realize they’re in danger. The most common causes include:

  • Scalding from steam, hot bath water, hot foods, or cooking liquids
  • Sunburns
  • Contact with flames, a stove, fireplace, or a curling iron
  • Electrical burns

It’s important to treat burns quickly so they don’t get infected or form a scar. Take your loved one to an emergency room right away if they:

  • Have large or deep burns on their face, hands, feet, groin, or over a large joint
  • Are coughing, having trouble breathing, or are short of breath
  • Pass out, even if only for a few seconds
  • Have shaking chills
  • Have a fever of 101 F or higher

 

What to Do

If your loved one has a burn, think safety first. Put out the fire, turn off the electricity, and wear gloves if any chemicals were involved. Stay calm and tell them you’ll take care of it. Look at the burn carefully to see how bad it is.

If it’s a major burn, take clothes off the affected area, but don’t take off any burned clothes that are stuck to the skin. Run cool -- not cold -- water over the area. Don’t open any blisters or put cream or ointment on the skin until they’ve seen a doctor.

If it’s a minor burn, gently take clothes, shoes, jewelry, or any other items away from the area. Run cool -- not cold -- water over it for 10 to 15 minutes or until the pain is better.

If the skin is broken, clean it with mild soap and saline. You can use water if you don’t have saline, but water may sting open skin. If the burn doesn’t need medical attention, put a moisturizer such as petroleum jelly over it and cover it with a bandage. Aloe vera may ease the pain of a burn, but it won’t help it heal.

Keep the burn covered while it heals. If a blister forms, don’t pop it. It’s natural protection against infection, and the fluid may help with healing. If a blister breaks, gently clean the area with soap and water and cover it with a nonstick bandage. If it’s large and hurts, call their doctor.

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For pain, you can give them acetaminophen or another pain medication their doctor has approved. If you use acetaminophen, don’t give more than 3,000 milligrams per day. If you use ibuprofen, don’t give more than 3,200 milligrams per day. Check with their doctor first to be sure it won’t affect any other medicines or conditions they may have.

Call their doctor if:

  • The burn is more than a couple of inches across or if it’s white. This could be a sign that it’s a deep burn.
  • There are blisters in more than one place.
  • The burns happened while someone else was taking care of your loved one, and you’re worried about abuse.

 

What to Watch For as It Heals

While the burn heals, keep an eye out for infection and make sure it gets better. The best way to keep infections from happening is to keep the burn covered.

If there’s more swelling, redness, pain, or tenderness after a day or two, the burn may be infected. Another sign of infection is more drainage, especially if it looks like pus. If your loved one gets a fever, call a doctor right away. You might have to use a cream that kills germs and bacteria or give them antibiotics.

New redness or swelling, warmth, and pain around the area can be signs that it’s not healing well. Other signs of that include the area turning dark brown or black or leaking fluid. If it’s not healing, have it checked by a doctor.

Types of Burns

How bad a burn is depends on how much skin was burned, where it is on the body, and how deep it is.

A first-degree burn affects just the top layer of skin. There will be redness and mild swelling, but no blisters. These usually take 3 to 6 days to heal.

A second-degree burn affects the top layer of skin and the tissue underneath it. The skin will form blisters that leak a clear fluid. Scars may form. This type of burn usually takes 7 to 20 days to heal if it’s not too deep. Deep second-degree burns can take more than 21 days to heal.

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A third-degree burn is serious and deep. It affects all the skin layers, and may also affect the fat and muscles underneath. It damages nerves, so it may not cause pain. The skin may be charred black, white, or brown. They heal slowly; larger ones often need a skin graft to repair.

An inhalation burn happens when someone breathes in very hot air, steam, smoke, or chemicals. Often, they’re caused by liquid that’s almost boiling, or hot food like cheese, potatoes, and noodles. They’re hard to see except for some signs on the face and around the mouth. They can make it hard to breathe, chew, or swallow.

Tips to Prevent Burns

It can be a good idea to help your loved one with cooking. Don’t let them wear loose-fitting clothes when they cook, because these can catch a flame more easily. Keep a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, and check smoke alarm batteries often. Let hot food and drinks cool down before serving them.

Older people are more likely to be scalded by hot water because their skin is thinner and less sensitive. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recommends setting the temperature on your water heater to 120 F.

If you or your loved one smokes, use electronic cigarettes or smoke outside. Never smoke in bed. Keep cigarettes, lighters, matches, and other smoking materials in a safe place. Use a deep, sturdy ashtray, and keep it away from anything that can burn. Don’t toss cigarettes into potted plants, landscaping, dried grass, or leaves. Before you throw away butts and ashes, make sure the fire is out and they are cold.

Never smoke or let anyone smoke where medical oxygen is used -- oxygen can make materials catch fire more easily and make fires burn faster.

WebMD Medical Reference in Collaboration with the Cecil G. Sheps Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 18, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC: Injury Prevention: “Burns.”

Mayo Clinic: “Burns: First aid,” “Ibuprofen (Oral Route).”

World Health Organization: “Burns.”

American Family Physician: “Outpatient burns: Prevention and care.”

Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J (Eds), Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2015.

Harvard Health Publishing: “Acetaminophen safety: Be cautious but not afraid.”

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