Friction burns can be very painful — here's how to treat them and prevent infection, according to a doctor
- Friction burns — aka rug burns — can happen when you fall on rough surfaces like asphalt and grass.
- You can care for minor burns at home by applying cool compresses and taking OTC pain medicine.
Have you ever slid across a rug and scraped your knee? If so, you've had a friction burn — though you might have called it a rug burn.
This type of injury can happen whenever your skin forcefully rubs against a hard or rough surface — including grass, exercise mats, or asphalt, as well as rugs and carpet.
Most friction burns are minor and will resolve on their own with time and a little home care, but in some cases they can be serious injuries that need medical attention.
Read on to learn how friction burns occur, how to care for them at home, and when you might need medical treatment.
What are friction burns?
When your skin rubs a surface at high speeds, heat builds up and damages your skin, causing a friction burn.
This type of burn can happen on any part of your body, but they most commonly occur on bony areas, like your hands and elbows or your knees and shins.
Note: Friction burns commonly happen with falls because you're likely to reach out with your hands and forearms to brace yourself as you fall. Your knees or shins may also slide along the ground, creating more friction.
A friction burn will leave your skin red or reddish-brown, depending on your natural skin color. The area will feel hot to the touch, and you'll typically notice a burning sensation, according to Dr. Alain Michon, Medical Director at Ottawa Skin Clinic.
Friction burns can range from mild — like most rug burns — to severe injuries that require hospitalization, like road rash after a motorcycle accident.
They are classified by degrees, based on how deep the burn damages layers of your skin:
- First-degree friction burn: This common type of friction burn affects the superficial layer of your skin, aka the epidermis. Your skin will feel tender and appear red or reddish-brown. These burns aren't usually serious, but applying a thin layer of ointment such as aloe or petroleum jelly may help soothe them.
- Second-degree friction burn: These burns affect your epidermis and dermis, the next layer of skin. In addition to turning red or reddish-brown, your skin will feel painful to the touch, look wet or shiny, and may blister. If the burn is deep enough, it might require medical care. These burns may leave scars.
- Third-degree friction burn: These severe burns damage or destroy your epidermis and dermis and often leave scars. Your skin might appear black, brown, white or yellow after a third-degree burn. Since these burns damage your nerves, they may not feel painful — but they still require prompt medical care.
Some common causes of friction burns include:
- Road rash: Serious friction burns can happen when your body slides along concrete or asphalt after being thrown from a motorcycle or bicycle. You can also get a friction burn when skateboarding, riding a scooter, or inline skating, if you fall when not wearing protective padding.
- Sports: Sliding along surfaces like grass, a gym floor, or mats may cause friction burns. Athletes like gymnasts and soccer players are at risk of repeatedly getting friction burns, and it's important to treat these burns to avoid long-term scarring that can be difficult to reverse, Michon says.
- Moving belts: Any st-moving belt, such as those found in car engines or a factory setting, can give you a friction burn. If you have a treadmill at home, avoid letting kids play on it, since the belt is a common cause of friction burns in children. Similarly, never get onto an already moving treadmill, as a fall could cause a friction burn.
- Vacuum cleaners: You can get a friction burn if your hand or foot is sucked into the brush roller at the base of a vacuum. Burns from vacuums are less common than other types of friction burns, but they're still a risk, especially for children.
How to treat it
You can treat most cases of friction burns at home. Typically, they'll heal within three to six days.
Pediatrician Dr. Ali Alhassani, Head of Clinical at Summer Health, recommends treating minor friction burns with the following steps:
- Clean the wound: Gently wash the affected area with soap and water to remove any dirt or debris.
- Apply cool compresses: Place a cool, damp cloth on the burn to help reduce pain and swelling.
- Take over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication: Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help ease pain and inflammation.
- Keep the burn covered: To prevent infection, keep the burn covered with a sterile bandage or gauze.
- Avoid further friction: Try to avoid further rubbing or pressure on the burn to prevent further damage.
- Do not pop any blisters: If you develop blisters, it's best to leave them alone instead of squeezing or popping them. Allowing them to heal on their own will provide a barrier against infection.
When to get medical attention
In some cases, your friction burn may require medical care.
According to Alhassani, you'll want to contact a doctor if:
- The burn is deep or covers a large part of your body.
- The burn is on your face, hands, feet, or other sensitive areas.
- You have other symptoms, like fever or difficulty breathing.
- You notice signs of infection, including redness, swelling, or pus.
How to prevent them
You can avoid or reduce friction burns by taking a few steps:
- Wear protective clothing: While riding a motorcycle or bicycle, you can protect your skin with a long-sleeved shirt or jacket, pants, and gloves — and don't forget your helmet.
- Wear pads when playing sports: Covering your knees and elbows with protective padding can help minimize friction burns to these areas. It doesn't hurt to wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants, either.
- Know the risk: Be aware that certain household items, like treadmills and vacuum cleaners, can cause friction burns. It's best to monitor your kids around a home treadmill, and avoid letting them play with vacuum cleaners.
Usually, you don't need to worry about minor friction burns from playing sports, falling onto a carpeted floor, or sliding on a hard surface. Keeping the area clean and covered will help the natural healing process.
On the other hand, if you've experienced a severe burn from things like motorcycle or bicycle accidents or fast-moving treadmills, medical attention might be necessary.
Don't hesitate to talk to a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have concerns about a friction burn — they can help you determine how serious the burn is and offer more guidance on how to treat it.
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