When to seek treatment at a burn center

“Why do I have to drive into the middle of D.C. to a burn center? There’s a hospital right by me.”

We hear this question all the time. I answer that burns are wounds, but wounds aren’t burns. Burn injuries are unique and require specialized treatment.

Dr. Johnson
Dr. Jeffrey Shupp, director, Burn Center

Even burns that appear mild or small can turn into serious injuries without proper treatment. Too often I treat patients whose wounds become infected after non-specialized treatment at a local clinic or wound center – even those that say they treat burns. It’s unfortunate when we have to perform surgery or a skin graft on a patient who may have been healed by now if they had come to a burn center for their initial treatment.

About 486,000 burn injuries require medical treatment in the United States every year – and they can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any age. We treat about 1,000 patients a year, with 600 admitted to the hospital.


When should I go to a burn center for treatment?

 “I don’t want to bother the burn center specialists. It’s just a little burn. They’ll think I’m overreacting.”

I can’t say it enough: You’re not bothering us, and we don’t think you’re overreacting. We’d much rather see you now for a burn that doesn’t require a lot of care, than to later manage an infected wound or perform surgery that could have been avoided.

"Even if you think it’s just a mild burn, go to a burn center." via @MedStarWHC

The American Burn Association has a list of criteria  for which they recommend you receive treatment from a burn center, including:

  • Burns that involve the face, hands, feet, genitalia or major joints
  • Third-degree burns, which can appear whitish, charred or translucent with no pinprick sensation in the burned area
  • Burns that cover more than 10 percent of total body surface area
  •  Electrical or chemical burns
  • If you have pre-existing medical conditions that can complicate recovery

If you have a burn that meets these criteria or that you would like a burn specialist to look at, request an appointment or call 202-877-7347.

What makes a burn center unique?

“I liked the plastic surgeon who performed my surgery last year. Can’t he do a skin graft?”

Surgeons outside of burn centers can perform amazing skin grafts and debridement (removing damaged tissue from a wound). But what makes a burn center unique is the team approach we take to treating burn patients.

Burn center specialists are dedicated to treating only burn patients. They can include:

  • Burn rehabilitation specialists
  • Burn surgeons who have additional training in burn, trauma or critical care
  • Dietitians
  • Nurses with special training in caring for burn patients
  • Pharmacists
  • Social workers

When you’re not treated at a burn center, coordinating care becomes more difficult. You may have surgery at one place and rehabilitation across town. Getting plugged in with a burn center from the beginning makes coordinating downstream care that much easier and can benefit your physical and psychosocial health.

The biggest progress made in burn injury survival did not come from antibiotics or advances in critical care. It was the organization and verification of regional burn centers.

Centers such as The Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center must meet rigorous criteria to be considered a burn center. There may not always be one right next door. After ours, the next closest burns centers are in Baltimore and Richmond, Va.

D.C. residents are fortunate to have a burn center nearby. For those who do not have a burn center in their community, travel to the nearest burn center for care if you can. I want you to receive appropriate care from the beginning so you can avoid potential complications down the road.

Don’t “Feel the Burn” this Summer

Medical Intel Podcast – Dr. Jeffrey Shupp Discusses Summer Burn Prevention

Burns Come in Many Forms

Hear “summer” and “burns” in the same sentence and “sunburn” probably comes to mind.  But that’s not the burn that Dr. Jeffrey Shupp thinks of.

“Between spring and fall, the top reasons for burns are outdoor barbecues, bonfires and fire pits,” says the director of the Burn Center at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the only adult burn center in the Washington region. “Most cooking accidents involve a fire accelerant, like charcoal lighter fluid, or a backflash from a leaky gas grill or jet that’s been left on too long.”

According to the American Burn Association, gas grill or charcoal fires injure about 6,000 people each year. And while it’s true that being “under the influence” can be a factor, a more common cause is a false sense of security.

“So often we hear patients say: ‘But I’ve always done it this way.’ Unfortunately, those previous, accident-free experiences can lead to a lack of caution…and a second or third degree burn.”

Nowhere is that more apparent than with home fireworks, the second most frequent source of summertime burns at the Hospital Center. Nationwide, almost half of all firework burns affect children. 

“Fireworks can produce very serious injuries, sometimes even requiring amputation of the fingers,” warns Dr. Shupp who, as a six-year-old, was prohibited from ever using sparklers after a napkin caught fire at a family celebration.  

It’s an important warning to heed. The National Fire Protection Association reports that a seemingly innocent sparkler can reach 1,200°F. For perspective, water’s boiling point is 212°F; glass melts at 900°F.

Fortunately, most burns in the United States are first degree—mild injuries to the superficial layer of the skin, like sunburn, that can be safely treated at home.    

But up to 500,000 Americans each year need medical care for more serious burns that can be debilitating and even deadly.

To avoid the emergency room and assure a safe summer for you and your family, follow these simple tips:

  • Wear short sleeves or roll them up when grilling
  • Use long-handled barbecue tools
  • Establish a 3-foot “safety zone” around grills and open fires
  • Be cautious, careful and aware of your surroundings
  • Leave the fireworks in the hands of the professionals

Tune in to the full podcast with Dr. Jeffrey Shupp.
Have any questions?

We are here to help! If you have any questions about burns or the Burn Center call MedStar Washington Hospital Center at 202-877-3627.

Subscribe to Blog

Get health tips and the latest news in your inbox.