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Burning skin is in many cases due to harmless causes that are due to short-term skin irritation. Occasionally, the burning sensation also indicates a serious health complaint. For example, burning the skin is a sign of the onset of white skin cancer. Even though this reason for skin burns is rather rare, it does reflect that the complaint cannot generally be dismissed as banality. In this article you will learn what is important when assessing the burning and how the symptom can be treated in an emergency.
The skin (derma or cutis) is the largest organ of our body and serves to protect it from external influences and as a sensory organ through which we perceive sensations such as pain, heat, cold or even a burning sensation. A distinction must be made between different skin layers. If you omit the mucous membrane, which is mainly found inside the body, the skin can be divided into three layers:
The epidermis represents the visible part of the skin layers. It serves as the actual protective covering of the body, but at the same time also absorbs all substances that are brought onto the skin from the outside. The epidermis is also responsible for the production of skin pigments, the so-called melanin. The epidermis is equipped with pigment-forming cells, the melanocytes.
- Leather skin (dermis or corium):
The epidermis is anchored in the dermis. It mainly consists of connective tissue and extremely delicate capillary blood vessels, through which the epidermis is supplied with nutrients. The regulation of the body temperature also takes place via the dermis, since the sweat glands of the body are localized here. The dermis also houses the hair roots as well as the sensory receptors, which are essential for the sense of touch.
Like the dermis, part of the subcutis consists of connective tissue. In addition, it is also permeated with adipose tissue, which on the one hand serves as thermal insulation and on the other hand as an energy store. In addition, nerves and blood vessels run in the subcutis, which ensure the exchange of sensory stimuli and nutrients with the skin layers located above the subcutis.
The anatomical structure of the skin gives it an extremely robust character. Nevertheless, it is also susceptible to many symptoms of very different types and here in particular to sensations due to existing skin irritation.
One of these common symptoms is burning skin. How exactly it arises has not yet been completely clarified, but the burning sensation is triggered primarily by skin contact with irritating substances, which suggests that the burning sensation is a warning signal from the sensory receptors. Burning skin is therefore an irritation of irritated nerves.
The burning sensation is often perceived very differently by those affected and can range from a slight feeling of warmth to itchy burning and stinging pain. The intensity of the burning is therefore not always the same, although severe skin burning generally also indicates a stronger skin irritation. Depending on the cause, the burning sensation on the skin can also be associated with accompanying symptoms such as reddening of the skin or inflammation.
Skin irritation as the main cause
Many of the causes of a burning sensation on the skin are harmless in nature and mostly arise from a short-term excessive level of external stimuli that act on the skin. Since the skin is very robust, it can tolerate it to a certain extent well and without permanent damage. However, temporary skin irritation can occur, but this usually regulates itself again.
A good example of thermal stimuli that leave a burning sensation on the skin is excessive heat. This can lead to a temporary or even prolonged burning of the skin. The function of the skin as a sensory organ plays a crucial role in such processes. For example, burning the skin when taking a shower too hot or reaching for a hot object is primarily intended to serve as a warning sign and encourage people to stop the current action to prevent greater damage from burns.
In addition to local redness, a burn and a feeling of tension in the skin usually develop as part of a sunburn. However, this is less a warning function of the body than a defense reaction. Because sunburn is basically a slight burn of the skin, which inevitably calls on the immune system to fight back. In many cases the skin regenerates itself after a few days. Nevertheless, in addition to extensive skin care, sunbathing should also be ended as soon as possible and the skin better protected in the future. Because the skin remembers any major damage and so the next one can Sunburn may cause an even stronger burning sensation.
Burning skin due to mechanical irritation can, for example, result in unfavorable friction conditions on the skin. Especially when the skin is particularly dry and comes into contact with items of clothing made of scratching materials, for example, this often leads to skin irritation, which is perceived as burning, itching or tension.
Skin irritation due to mechanical irritation is also conceivable in the course of daily shaving. On the one hand, the top layer of skin can be scraped off, on the other hand microscopic cuts in the skin tissue can occur. Both of these can manifest themselves as a burning sensation, reddening and sometimes even slight bleeding and swelling.
This may be due to improper use, for example when working on the skin area against the direction of hair growth. The burning sensation is further intensified by shaving foam or shaving gel, provided that the substances penetrate the skin through the shaving wounds. Many cosmetics contain numerous irritating ingredients, which are usually accepted by the epidermis without irritation, but quickly overwhelm the sensory receptors when they come into contact with the underlying skin layers.
By the way: Some people react with a burning sensation when using razors properly. In this case, the most likely cause is excessive skin sensitivity or an intolerance to, for example, metal or shaving cream ingredients.
Speaking of incompatibilities: Almost as standard, skinburn occurs when the skin comes into contact with various chemicals that have toxic or caustic ingredients. The chemical substances can be very different in nature and do not exclude even plant secretions and aggressive care products. An existing allergy or intolerance increases the likelihood of a burning skin reaction. Examples of such chemical skin irritations include:
- Industrial chemicals (e.g. spraying agents),
- Household chemicals (e.g. detergents and cleaning agents),
- Care products (e.g. perfumes or lotions),
- Plant toxins (e.g. nettle or hogweed),
- Animal and insecticides (e.g. spider, snake or mosquito venom).
The best way to explain how burning occurs with chemical stimuli is by using the nettle. It has considerable amounts of histamine in its stinging hair. This leads to inflammatory reactions in the skin, the classic symptoms of which also include a burning sensation.
The situation is similar with animal and insect poisons. One example is the burning or itchy mosquito bite, in which the insects infuse irritating and inflammation-causing secretions into the skin of their victim. In most cases, the secretion should only trigger a local anesthetic or prevent blood from clotting while drinking. However, the human immune system basically recognizes the secretion as a foreign substance and reacts with corresponding inflammation symptoms and sensations as a warning signal.
Burning skin with existing allergy
Another very wide range of causes for the burning sensation on the skin can be found in the area of hypersensitivity and allergies. The events here are usually closely linked to chemical irritation. The skin-specific symptoms of allergies very often occur when the triggering substance has had direct contact with the surface of the skin. Classic examples are intolerances and allergies to certain ingredients in:
- Care products (e.g. fragrances),
- Items of clothing (e.g. synthetic fibers),
- Jewelry (for example nickel),
- Detergents and disinfectants (e.g. preservatives).
The mechanism of formation can be explained here, similar to skin burning caused by contact with a nettle, by an increased release of the inflammatory messenger histamine. However, in the case of allergies, this substance is increasingly produced by the body itself, due to improper regulation of the immune system.
In the case of allergic causes, the histamine-mediated symptoms are mostly limited to the skin. However, allergens that find their way into the body via the respiratory or digestive tract (e.g. food, medication or plant pollen) can also trigger burning irritation reactions on the skin. If these are causally involved in the burning of the skin, the symptoms usually expand many times over and, in addition to skin complaints such as burning, reddening of the skin and itching, breathing, digestive and / or circulatory problems can also occur.
Autoimmune diseases and skin burning
Allergies are already a form of immunological malfunction with skin burning as a possible accompanying symptom. Suffering for patients with a skin-related autoimmune disease is often even more serious here. And even with some autoimmune diseases that primarily affect other parts of the body rather than the skin, burning skin is listed as a symptom of the disease. In such cases, the burning sensation is due to chronic incorrect reactions of the immune system, whereby the immune reaction is directed not against foreign substances, but against the body's own substances. Here are some examples of diseases:
- Psoriasis vulgaris,
- Lupus erythematosus,
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis,
- Multiple sclerosis,
- Type I diabetes mellitus
The range of possible symptoms in connection with autoimmune diseases seems almost infinite, because the complaints are usually not limited to one organ or organ system, but can express themselves in cross-organ, specific and non-specific symptoms. Even psoriasis, which is generally considered a skin disease, does not only go hand in hand with the typical plaque on the elbows, knees and scalp. In addition, the disease can also be manifested by severe joint pain and swelling on the fingers and toes.
In medicine, the cause is now defined as the cause of the body's immune processes against certain types of tissue in the body.
However, it has not yet been finally clarified as to what causes the body to autoantibody against its own structures. For autoimmune skin diseases as well as for most other autoimmune diseases, it is now most likely to be a multifactorial event, in which the following components can be considered:
- Genetic disposition:
Mutations at crucial interfaces of the DNA in the body cells create an innate susceptibility to develop one or more autoimmune diseases.
- External influences:
Stress, environmental pollutants and medication can drive the immune system's alertness so high that the body ultimately not only targets the exogenous influences.
Infection with certain pathogens can eventually lead to an autoimmune disease. This happens, for example, when the surface structure of the pathogen forms antibodies against the immune system that are similar in structure to the body's own tissue.
- Accompanying factors:
A weakened immune system (e.g. due to tumor diseases, inflammation or infections), but also special hormonal situations such as pregnancy, the menopause or permanent contraception with hormone preparations are also suspected of at least heating up autoimmune processes.
So there are many different factors that can promote the occurrence of autoimmune diseases. In the rarest of cases, a single triggering cause can be identified in those affected. Usually it is the interaction of several factors that lead to the onset of the disease.
Infections as a cause of skin burns
In terms of infectious diseases, the most common cause of skin burning is infection with herpes simplex viruses, in short a herpes infection. The herpes viruses can immigrate locally to certain areas of the skin, causing the skin to burn and itch in combination with fluid-filled blisters. The liquid in the vesicles contains the viruses in the highest concentration and is therefore very contagious. In addition, the infectious content of the blisters is also highly flammable, which is ultimately responsible for the burning sensation.
The most common herpes infection occurs in the area of the lips and is then called herpes labialis (cold sore). But it can also be found in the genital area as so-called genital herpes.
Skin irritation, which is accompanied by blistering and a burning sensation of the skin, can also be seen in shingles, which is triggered by the varicella zoster virus, which also belongs to the herpes virus family. When infected for the first time, the virus leads to chickenpox and the viruses can then remain in the organism for decades before they reactivate and cause an outbreak of shingles. The symptoms are usually limited to one half of the body and, with a few exceptions, are localized on the trunk or head.
An infection with borrelia (borreliosis), which gets into the body through the bite of a tick, can trigger various skin symptoms both in the initial stage and in the later chronification of borreliosis. In addition to the burning sensation of the skin, this clinical picture is also characterized by reddening, which extends in a circle around the bite site of the tick and thus the entry point of the borrelia. (Erythema migrans).
In the later course, the distant skin areas of the forearms and lower legs may become bluish, thin and become susceptible to a variety of sensations. Because Lyme disease is serious and permanent health damage, and can cause lifelong paralysis, inflammation of the brain and meninges, burning this infectious disease is not fun. If there is the slightest suspicion of a tick bite as the cause of circular reddening of the skin in connection with skin burning, a doctor should be consulted immediately.
Nerve disorders as the cause of skin burning
In the body, nerves have the task of passing on motor and sensory signals. If they are damaged by disease processes, they can no longer or no longer carry out this signal transmission to the usual extent. Functional failures in the target organs are inevitable, resulting in paralysis (target organ: muscle) and sensations or numbness (target organ: skin). Corresponding nerve damage or nerve disorders can have very different causes:
- Traumatic events:
Nerve damage as a result of accidents, falls or injuries (e.g. fractures, bruises).
- Stress load:
Nerve disorders due to persistent overloading and tension in the nerves (for example, pressure to perform and pressure or anxiety).
- Degenerative processes:
Nerve damage as a result of wear and tear (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, herniated disc).
- Deposition of toxins:
As a result of metabolic diseases in the course of which toxins accumulate on the nerve endings (diabetic neuropathy, hepatic neuropathy).
To a certain extent, nerve cells can also regenerate, but this process is very lengthy and depends on many supporting factors. The burning sensation can therefore disappear on its own during regeneration, or it can persist as long as the nerve damage can no longer be reversed.
As already indicated, depending on the cause, skin burns can be associated with a host of other complaints. Infections and systemic diseases are usually noticeable due to accompanying symptoms such as general fatigue, tiredness, difficulty concentrating or nausea. In addition to burning feelings on the skin, skin diseases and allergies usually show the typical symptoms of inflammation. To stay with the accompanying skin symptoms, the following complaints can be noted:
- Blistering, pimples or pustules,
- Reddening of the skin,
- Skin flakes,
- Skin swelling,
- Skin changes,
- sharp pain on the skin.
Since it is a sensation when the skin burns, the symptom is difficult to prove medically. The situation is different with the accompanying symptoms and possible causes of illness.
Accompanying complaints such as redness or swelling can already be recognized by the doctor simply by eye diagnosis. Daily events presented by the patient during the medical history and existing health complaints also help to narrow down the possible cause. More detailed results are then obtained from laboratory tests such as skin biopsies and blood tests. Imaging methods can also be used, which show inconsistencies in the area of the skin layers and organs quite reliably.
The treatment of skin burns is sometimes very individual in view of the various triggers. In some cases, conventional home remedies are enough to relieve the burning skin. In the case of causes of the disease, on the other hand, the underlying disease usually has to undergo appropriate therapy before the burning subsides.
If a slight sunburn or a temporary skin irritation is responsible for the burning sensation, cooling envelopes often bring a significant improvement. When shaving, we recommend special lotions and aftershaves specially developed for use after shaving, which usually also contain anti-inflammatory components. Some ointments and gels can also reliably soothe the skin in the event of a burning irritation.
Many creams, gels and ointments to soothe the skin contain medicinal herbs that have been proven to offer dermatological protection. For example, many after-sun lotions to avoid skin burns after sunbathing are based on extracts of aloe vera, which not only cool the skin but also strengthen the skin barrier. The situation is similar with marigold ointment. The marigold has always been a popular medicinal plant for all kinds of skin complaints and, in addition to skin problems such as pustules or dry skin, can also help with skin burns. Comfrey is also known as a secret medicinal weapon against skin complaints. It can be bought, for example, in the form of the so-called Kytta ointment. Overall, the following herbs are particularly recommended for burning skin:
- Aloe vera,
- Green / black tea,
- Witch hazel,
- Johannis herbs,
- Evening primrose,
Many of the medicinal herbs mentioned have a high proportion of tannins in the form of vegetable tannins (so-called tannins). They are known to narrow the skin pores and vessels through their contracting effect. This not only prevents infectious agents from entering the skin, but also reduces the release of itching and skin-burning immune messengers such as histamine. As a result, corresponding skin complaints are alleviated.
Incidentally, the medicinal plants can not only be used in the form of ointments. They can also be used as an additive for an envelope or a nourishing spa. Two measures that are particularly useful for skin problems, since they allow uncomplicated supply of large areas of skin with the necessary medicinal ingredients.
Change in eating and everyday habits
Allergic skin reactions of course first of all require avoiding the responsible allergens. With regard to contact allergens, this means, for example, avoiding certain additives in care products. Instead, products that are free of perfumes and preservatives should be used. If you are allergic to certain textiles or metals (e.g. latex or nickel allergy), you should refrain from wearing appropriate clothing and jewelry accessories such as earrings or necklaces.
The situation is similar for food allergies. It is often necessary to test in advance which foods trigger the skin burning in detail. Accordingly, in addition to a general allergy test, a special sensitivity of those affected while eating is required. The allergic reactions in this connection are very often due to food components such as preservatives or coloring agents, nuts, various types of cereals and plants. Likewise, allergies to citrus and seafood can always be identified as triggering skin burns.
Another important everyday aspect to avoid burning skin is stress. This does not only mean professional and private stress, such as that caused by deadline pressure, nervousness or inner unrest. The skin itself can also be weakened due to stress. Among other things, stress due to high levels of pollutants in the environment as well as extreme sunlight without suitable UV protection come into question. Both attack the skin barrier to a particular extent and should therefore be avoided if possible. When the sun is shining in particular, it is important to always provide adequate protection against skin damage caused by UV light. In addition to applying sunscreen, which must have an appropriate sun protection factor depending on the skin type, it is important not to make sunbaths very time-consuming. More than 15 minutes in the blazing summer sun should not be exceeded here, as otherwise not only skin burns, but also consequential damage to the skin cells and thus an increased risk of skin cancer are promoted.
Firm skin diseases such as neurodermatitis or psoriasis, which provoke burning skin as an accompanying symptom, can generally only be managed with suitable medicinal substances. Again, reference is made to medicinal plant ointments, for example from witch hazel or yarrow.
Likewise, ointments like Eucerin have proven themselves, which on the one hand contain re-moisturizing ingredients like hyaluronic acid and on the other hand skin-calming additives like urea. Another tip is the so-called zinc ointment. It contains zinc oxide, vitamin A and occasionally cod liver oil - a mixture of nutrients that is particularly good for the skin and supports its freedom from symptoms. The effect of zinc can be compared to the tannins of medicinal herbs containing tannins. Salycilic acid is also frequently recommended for itchy, dry, flaky and burning skin. which, like zinc, has a tannin-like effect, and healing earth, which also has a strengthening and symptom-relieving effect on the skin.
The most important active ingredients against skin inflammation and skin infections as the cause of the burning include, above all, antibiotic drugs such as fusidic acid or triclosan, as well as antiseptic drugs (e.g. chlorhexidine). Immunosuppressants such as glucocorticoids or prednisolone can also help, although it should be pointed out here that immunosuppressants have a very aggressive effect and can also increase the risk of infection in the case of existing immune deficiencies.
Possible skin burn diseases
- Contact allergy,
- Food allergy,
- Lupus erythematosus,
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis,
- Multiple sclerosis,
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus,
- Lyme disease,
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Dorothea Terhorst-Molawi: Dermatologie Basics, Elsevier / Urban Fischer Verlag, 4th edition, 2015
- Jonette E. Keri: Basics of topical dermatological therapy, MSD Manual, (accessed August 6, 2019), MSD
- Martin Röcken, Martin Schaller, Elke Sattler, Walter Burgdorf: Taschenatlas Dermatologie, Thieme Verlag, 1st edition, 2010
- Heidelore Hofmann et al .: Cutaneous Lyme Disease, S2K Guideline, German Dermatological Society (DDG), (accessed August 6, 2019), AWMF