Burn injuries do not affect all people equally. Certain conditions make it more or less likely that an individual will be able to recover from a burn injury and greatly impact the speed of any recovery. The physical condition of a patient has a significant impact on the body’s ability to fight off infection and heal itself. Burn injuries also take a toll on patients mentally and emotionally making the patient’s mental condition an important factor of recovery.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that an individual’s physical condition can have an impact on the extent of a burn injury. Body changes over time as well as differences between people are bound to have an impact on the extent of burn injuries and the associated recovery times. Age, the existence of other medical conditions, and mobility are all factors that affect burn injuries.
Numerous studies have evaluated the impact that age has on burn injuries. A general conclusion is that age affects burn injuries on a sliding scale. Children are most vulnerable at birth and reach their highest level of resilience in their teenage years. The effect of age plateaus until around the age of forty when the body’s ability to repair itself begins to decline.
Children account for nearly a quarter of all burn victims worldwide with most of these injuries occurring in children under the age of five. The American Burn Association defines “young” as burn patients under the age of ten. While this age group accounts for a high percentage of burns, the burns suffered tend to be more minor than those experienced by older individuals. In a study of over 1400 burn patients, children under the age of ten had the lowest average Total Body Surface Area and lowest accompanying inhalation injury percentages out of any age group.
But even though the burn injuries may not be as severe, burns can still have long term consequences on children. Burn injuries can affect the way a child develops and lead to life-long physical deformity. Not only do scars leave lasting marks, but burns received during early years also increase a child’s risk of mental illness. As a result, children who experience burn injuries need immediate care to facilitate recovery as well as continual check-ups to ensure that the burn injury leaves as little physical and mental damage as possible.
For the purposes of burn injuries, the American Burn Association defines “old” as burn patients over the age of fifty. Burn patients who fall into this category are at an increased risk for adverse outcomes following a burn injury. The two predominant ways in which this risk manifests is increased mortality rate and longer hospital stays.
Statistical evidence of burn patients admitted to burn care centers from 2002 to 2011 confirms the American Burn Associations age distinction. For burns covering between 0.1-40% of TBSA, mortality rates were twice as high for patient’s in the 50-59.9 age group than for those in the 40-49.9 age group demonstrating a sharp incline at the age of 50. Using the full sample, patients in the 50 plus age group had mortality rates over five times greater than those under the age of 50.
The reason for the increased mortality rates among older burn patients is two-fold. First, the body’s natural repairing abilities begin to decrease with age. The skin naturally thins with age as the body has a more difficult time in constantly refreshing the epidermis with new cells. Furthermore, the body produces fewer white blood cells (the primary infection-fighting cells within the body) with age. The result is increased opportunities for infection with less infection-fighting capacity. This problem is exacerbated in burn injuries.
Second, older individuals are at a higher risk of already having pre-existing medical conditions. As discussed more fully below, pre-existing medical conditions further decrease the body’s natural healing mechanisms and leave the burn patient vulnerable to serious complications.
Burn injuries often cause damage that can aggravate or intensify pre-existing medical conditions. For example, flame burns are often accompanied by inhalation injuries which make breathing more difficult. For individuals with respiratory illness, inhalation injuries can cause an onset of the underlying condition.
Other conditions that are commonly complicated by burn injuries include heart conditions, kidney disease, and diabetes. When it is already working to combat the pre-existing condition, the body has less capacity to protect itself and/or heal from burn injuries. Additionally, complications from burn injuries, such as blood loss or shock, are more likely to occur when the body is not functioning properly to begin.