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The Medical Minute: What to do when fire and ice burns and bites

Every February, Lititz in Lancaster County hosts its annual homage to flame and freeze — the Fire and Ice Festival.

The name is a heartwarming image on a chilly night – pillars of flame light whorls of ice like spun glass. But both of the festival’s title elements carry with them real winter time dangers ― burn injuries and frostbite.

Below, Dr. Michael Reihart, director of emergency medicine at Penn State Health Lancaster Medical Center, and Dr. John Ginder, a family medicine physician at Penn State Health Medical Group — Kissel Hill, offer their take on how best to treat the two hazards.

How do I treat a burn?

“If the burn is superficial, the first course of action is to run it under cool water to cool the skin and help alleviate the initial pain,” Reihart said. “To encourage healing, cover with a sterile bandage and bacitracin.”

You might have heard that you should cover a burn with butter. Don’t do it, Reihart says, because it can cause an infection.

If the burn forms blisters, don’t pop them.

When should I see a doctor?

If the burn seems deeper than you initially thought or you begin to see signs of infection like warmness and redness around the burn and a fever, call a doctor.

More than 485,000 people suffer burns bad enough to need medical treatment every year, according to the American Burn Association. Thermal burns are the most common.

You can burn yourself cooking, working with a chain saw or repairing your car. Eighty-six percent of patients requiring burn center admission come with burns from excessive heat, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Risk factors include:

  • Age – kids often come into contact with hot liquids
  • Male gender – more men have burns than women
  • Lack of smoke detectors in the home

What about the flipside – frostbite?

Frostbite is when skin and underlying tissues freeze after exposure to cold temperatures. You can prevent it by wearing multiple layers of warm, dry clothing when going out.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you cover your nose, ears, toes, cheeks, chin and fingers. Like hot burns, more men than women develop mild frostbite ― 14.2% of men versus 11.9% of women.

How do you treat it?

“Slowly rewarming the affected area is key,” Ginder said. “Do not apply direct heat, but instead use a warm washcloth or water. This will help minimize pain and any tissue damage. Over the counter pain relievers can be used as well to minimize pain.”

When should you see a doctor?

If your skin turns white or gray or it feels firm, waxy or numb, the CDC recommends seeking immediate medical attention. To learn more, call 1-800-CDC-INFO.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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