Painful or debilitating burn wounds can lead to mental health challenges

Friends running on the beach holding sparklers

Before you fire up the grill, build a backyard bonfire or burn brush, take a quick refresher on fire safety to protect yourself and those around you. Federal injury data shows that an average of about 310,000 people per year were treated in emergency rooms for nonfatal, unintentional fire injuries/burns from 2018 to 2020.

Your vigilance could not only prevent physical burns, but also the emotional trauma that can accompany them. Even small burns have the potential to slow you down or limit what you can do, and burn recovery can take a toll not just on the body, but also on mental health.

Pain, scars and limitations

Burn injuries are very painful and, even when well-managed, pain can persist. Further, burns can lead to changes in appearance and limit one’s ability to move and function. Depending on the location of the burn, it can have an impact on self-image and sexual functioning, or lead to a long-term medical condition. Families can experience strain and financial security could be harmed if one’s ability to work is limited.

All this can affect the coping and functioning skills and take a serious toll on mental health. Anxiety, depression and traumatic reactions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), aren’t uncommon. Many people have trouble sleeping or experience panic attacks. And, if an accidental burn is self-inflicted, patients may initially feel shame, guilt or embarrassment.

Even small burns can lead to distress

A patient who requires skin grafting, other surgical intervention or a long hospital stay can face especially difficult challenges, but the mental impact doesn’t always correlate with the size or intensity of the burn. Even smaller burns can have significant effects on well-being.

The effects can be related to where on the body a person is burned. For example, if someone who works as an electrician and uses their hands for work has a relatively small burn on the hands and fingers, it could limit range of motion, impact the ability to work and lead to loss of income. Financial stress, relationship stress or questions about one’s identity could follow.

Emotional pain is shared

Mental struggles aren’t limited to the person with a burn injury.

Families might witness their loved one’s distress throughout recovery. And caretakers are also affected, with critical care nurses asked to perform daily care that’s often very painful, taking a toll on both the provider and the patient.

Help is available

Psychological care is often part of treatment for burn patients who are hospitalized or receive rehabilitation care through burn centers. If you’re in a different situation, even if you experienced a burn years ago, reach out a soon as possible if pain or loss of functionality is affecting your well-being or ability to cope.

Look for change in mood, anxiety, persistent or uncontrollable worry, sleep difficulties, or a change in appetite, especially if your day-to-day life is being negatively impacted. Reaching out to your primary care provider can be a great first step if you‘re noticing these types of difficulties. Medications, psychotherapy and other interventions are available to help address these and other mental health symptoms that can accompany burn injuries.

Simple prevention tips

As the weather warms each spring, the number of burn patients tends to increase because people engage in more outdoor activities, but burns can happen any time of year. Significant, extensive burns can arise from what seems like a benign situation, with cooking being a common cause.

Often taking simple precautions can prevent burns. Use the links below to learn more.

Ohio State’s Comprehensive Burn Center is the only ABA-verified adult burn center in central Ohio.

Learn more about our excellent burn treatment and rehabilitation options

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