A friction burn is a type of abrasion that occurs when the skin rubs against another surface. It is also known as rope burn, rug burn, chafing or skinning. Despite the name, friction burns aren’t really burns, but since friction generates heat, extreme cases can cause the outer layers of the skin to burn. If the top layers of the dermis are removed, the individual will experience pain and discomfort, but bleeding isn’t common.
How Friction Burns Happen
Minor friction burns can occur quite easily. The mere action of skin rubbing against skin can cause abrasion. However, it is more common for friction burns to be caused by carpet, rope or clothing. The more sensitive a person’s skin is, the more likely it is that they will suffer injury. Friction burns can lead to infection as well as scarring that can be either temporary or permanent.
Friction burns often occur in road traffic accidents, especially those involving motorcyclists or bicyclists. This is because of the combination of hard, rough asphalt and speed. Some friction burns are also due to items in the workplace or home such as moving belts and treadmills.
The exact incidence of friction burns isn’t known since most affected people don’t have to go to the doctor or the hospital. In addition, these injuries aren’t typically counted in surveys on burn injuries. However, it is estimated that friction burns account for one to two percent of burn injuries.
Generally, burns can damage the three layers of the skin: the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis or subcutaneous tissue. The epidermis is the upper layer so as long as there’s a burn injury, this will be damaged. Deeper burns go into the dermis which contains the hair follicles and nerve endings. The deepest burns of all extend into the subcutaneous layer. The latter is unlikely to occur due to friction.
Friction burns can happen on any area of the body, but they tend to affect the bony parts including the elbows, forearms, knees and shins. Scrapes can often be more painful than cuts since they tear a much bigger section of the skin and expose more nerve endings. However, abrasions to the head or face can look worse than they are and bleed a lot.
The true severity of the injury can only be assessed when the bleeding is under control. To prevent infection, every friction burn should be cleaned and cleared of dirt and debris.
Symptoms of Friction Burns
Friction burns cover a wide area of the skin and appear red and raw. The skin could bleed or there may be fluid weeping from the area. A lot depends on what caused the injury. If the burn resulted from rug burn, it will be dry, but road rash is more likely to weep. Rug burn is also painful.
As with other burns, the severity of a friction burn is measured by the depth of the burn and the size as measured as a percentage of the body’s surface area. Superficial burns only damage the epidermis and they may simply be called skin abrasions.
With partial-thickness burns, the epidermis is completely scraped away and the dermis is affected. This is when rug burns start to bleed and rarely, weep fluid. Since the epidermis stays largely intact, the skin can continue to regulate the victim’s temperature and keep the body free from infection.
Meanwhile, full-thickness burns are characterized by the removal of both the epidermis and the dermis and the exposure of the deepest layer or muscle. This type of friction burn is rare since it’s highly unlikely that the necessary amount of force could be sustained.
Severity of Burns
Some types of burns are deemed to be more severe than others based on the where they occur on the body. Injuries on the face, genitalia, hands, and feet are considered severe. Still, a rug burn injury to the face doesn’t present the complications that a thermal burn would. However, anyone with rug burns on the hands or feet that are large enough to interfere with regular function should see a doctor. Rug burns to the face or genitals also require medical attention as does any full or partial-thickness burn that covers a large area.
Treatment for Friction Burns
Even though friction burns aren’t truly classified as burns, they may have to be treated quite similarly to thermal burns or electrical burns. It all depends on the severity and depth of the injury.
Usually, the first step is to rinse the affected area and clean it with a gentle soap and water. There’s no need to run water over the burn for ten minutes or more as is the case with thermal burns. That’s because as soon as the friction stops, the injury stops progressing.
After the burn is cleaned, it should be covered in a dry bandage. Burn gels and ointments are helpful for friction burns and they don’t inhibit healing. If the injured person is experiencing pain, they can use over-the-counter medications. Minor cases don’t usually require any more than this and can be easily treated at home.
It is still necessary to monitor the wound to make sure it doesn’t get infected. Individuals with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop an infection. It doesn’t matter whether their compromised immunity is due to a health condition or medication. Signs of infection include swelling, worsening pain and pus or drainage coming from the wound. A fever or a rash that gets bigger or spreads also indicates infection. If a friction burn becomes infected, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics and prescription-grade topical cream.
Friction burns are typically minor, and they will, therefore, heal on their own after about a week. Usually, there’s no scarring, but severe burns, including rug burn, can leave slight discoloration or permanent scarring. If a victim has serious injuries but they get the right treatment, they shouldn’t experience any life-changing complications.
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