Tag Archives: burns

Q&A: Don’t Cook This At Home

How long would somebody be able to be burned on an open fire without sustaining life threatening burns? Also i love your blog 😀 Thank you for your time!

I’m honestly not sure exactly how long, but it’s not going to take much time.

A quick caveat: The data I could find was on conductive burns, not convection burns, so there is a little bit more leeway, but this one isn’t going to end well. Also, this is one of those times where I’m having to make an educated guess. I don’t have this particular bit of info internalized, and I can’t find a concrete answer on short notice.

Direct contact with water or steam over 155 Fahrenheit (68C) can result in third degree burns in around a second. For reference: Water boils at around 212F (100C), so even if you haven’t brought it to a boil, you’re already in range for some serious injuries, just messing around with simmering.

An open bonfire tops out at around 1100F (593C). Technically, the sustained temperature will be a bit lower than that, and it will vary by the wood being used. Of course, when you’re talking about temperatures in the 500C range, five degrees difference isn’t going to mean much. (Also, if that wasn’t enough fun, a charcoal briquette can burn at nearly twice that.)

Remembering that third degree burns are life threatening, and remembering that the smoke emitted from the flame will start out at roughly the same temperature as the fire. I’m inclined to say under a second.

It’s not that being set on fire is an immediate death sentence, nor that there aren’t some unusual circumstances where someone could get away unscathed. (Firewalkers are a thing, after all. They rely on a thin layer of moisture on their feet to avoid burning.) There are also plenty of burn survivors who have been, literally, set on fire. But, this is one of those things that can flat out kill someone. Even if they somehow survive the heat, the resulting smoke inhalation will probably finish the job.


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Do you suppose that a person who’s spent about 2.5 years training themselves to withstand/ignore pain by say experiencing 4th degree burns over his entire body, would be able to throw one punch before collapsing after being stabbed in the lung?

Okay, so, two problems up front. The first being
that: Fourth degree burns aren’t painful. There may be some exceptions, but the
nerve endings are cooked, so nothing remains to transmit to the brain that this
should hurt, or even that the injury is occurring. The second is that: Fourth
degree burns don’t heal. As I mentioned a second ago, fourth degree burns are
where the tissue has been cooked, the meat itself is dead at this point.

Without immediate and extensive medical treatment,
fourth degree burns are life threatening injuries. These are where the burn
gets into the deep tissue, destroying muscles, ligaments, tendons, and any nerves
unfortunate enough to be affected. Usually, fourth degree burns penetrate to
the bone, so if it’s a limb, that’s not coming back.

Also, note the word I used above, “cooked.” That’s a
pretty good description of the kind of damage we’re talking about here. It’s
not something your character can walk away from.

Second, following up on what I said the other day
about injuries, pain, and adrenaline. If you missed it, the very short version
is that adrenaline actually impairs your ability to feel pain (to a degree), so
if you’re in combat and take a bullet, or get stabbed.

To an extent, none of this matters, a character can
keep fighting with a collapsed lung, but their ability to breathe will be
impaired. Lungs function operate based on controlled air pressure, so when they’re
punctured, they tend to deflate, halving the victim’s ability to breathe. They’d
suffer everything that comes along with hypoxia: Shortness of breath,
lightheaded, easily fatigued, and confusion, (I assume the confusion would take
a few minutes, but I’m not 100% certain). A collapsed lung can also cause the
victim to go into shock.

There is a point to teaching people to manage pain,
and the methods for that, ranging from extremely intensive exercise to some
varieties of very controlled physical abuse, but setting someone on fire does
not qualify as either, and fourth degree burns are something that will halt
your character’s training, it won’t toughen them up, but will turn them into a slab
of meat, cooked well done.

The issue is, a lot of writers take the idea of
things like extreme training, and push it way past any reasonable stopping
point. Fourth degree burns is up there with shooting a character to teach them
to control pain. Unless they have superpowers, it will transition from the
kinds of pain someone can learn from and into actually killing the student. A
character might get to the point where they’re being struck with a staff and
taking the blows without injury through proper muscle control, but you’re not
going to run them through with a sword, or set them on fire. That doesn’t teach
anything, and will seriously injure the student.

Following on that, the purpose of striking a student
is to teach them to take blows without being injured. They’re learning to tense
the muscles so the impact doesn’t cause harm.

Exercise is where you learn to tune out pain.
Someone used to sprinting on wet sand will be far better suited to powering
through pain than someone who was repeatedly set on fire by a sadistic
instructor. Also, I called this extreme exercise earlier, but this stuff is
still pretty tame. It will include things like asking the students to exercise
in unpleasant circumstances, not ones that pose an actual treat to them.

So, in short, yes, they can keep fighting, though it’s
not going to be as simple as they fall over, they’ll slow down, start losing
track of what’s going on, probably get far more seriously injured because they’re
still trying to participate against unimpaired foes, and then collapse.


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My MC has horrible facial burns and scars (3rd/4th degree) in a setting where healing magic exists. The in-story explanation for why she’s not dead from necrosis/infection/heat-damage to the brain is because, well, magic. Assuming the underlying tissue is mostly normal, how bad can the superficial scarring be without her running constant risks of infection?

It’s just going to depend on how good the healing magic in the setting is. Someone else was mentioning a Warcraft RP in one of the responses, and, granted I haven’t spent much time looking at that setting since Warcraft 3, but burns like that are pushing the limits of what someone can survive there.

On the other hand, I’ve got an Imperial Templar in Elder Scrolls Online who has half of his face, chest, and one of his arms, wrecked with burn scars. It’s one of the preset visual options. But, The Elder Scrolls is a setting where magic is so pervasive and effective, that not finishing someone off means there’s a real risk they’ll pop up later fully recovered, and in some cases (like the player characters in ESO) just killing them won’t do any good.

Depending on how potent magic is in your setting, you could potentially have a character with a partially exposed skull that’s unaffected, because magic is somehow keeping them alive. It’s all in your setting rules, and what the limits are for magic.


muffinsticks said: This seems like it went around the question… they asked how bad scarring can be without risking constant infection

Until you introduce magic into the equation, it’s a medical question… At that point, it’s “holes in the skin.” Once the skin recovers and seals it over, you should be mostly fine from future infections.

However, when you say, “but magic,” then it becomes a world building question, and it’s really going to depend on what your setting allows. I’m sorry if I didn’t make that clear in the initial post.


Q&A: Fourth Degree Burns

My MC’s arm got brunt to the bone in her hand/wrist, to the muscle (and a bit further) to the elbow and to the muscle from her elbow to her shoulder. She lost her nerves from her elbow to her fingers and the feeling comes back from her elbow up. She gets some treatment, mainly just ointments/herbs. She has 2 years until she joins the military. Would that be enough healing time? How would this affect her fighting? She fights in a style similar to tai chi, ninjato and teakowndo, does this matter?

Oh god, I can already tell this would be a nightmare to fully research. What you’re describing is a fourth degree burn… well, technically at least three fourth degree burns, requiring surgery, and possibly, in this case, amputation.

If your character has had enough of their arm burned away to destroy the nerves running down the arm, then everything “south” of the burn will be paralyzed, including her hand. If the burn also destroyed the artery in the arm, which is possible, then the tissue beyond the burn will die and proceed to rot. Technically this is called “tissue necrosis,” or gangrene, but, the reality is far less clinical and more horrifying.

Even if that’s not the case, third and fourth degree burns both carry a pretty serious risk of infection. For someone in a pre-modern setting, without an understanding of bacterial infection, and without access to a sterile operating environment? This is probably a death sentence.

Long term survival for burns like this, usually involve grafting tissue from elsewhere on the body. In that case, arterial grafting is possible today, though I don’t know how old that particular technique is. Muscle and skin grafts have been around for awhile. From what I can tell, nerve grafts are still semi-experimental, the technology is getting there, but it’s still tricky.

But, for a character limited to herbs and ointments? Unless they’re explicitly magical, and you’re in a setting where magic can repair egregious injuries like this? No, that’s how your character died, not a thing that happened to her before she started serving in her military.