Laser Treatment for Burn Scars: A Practical Guide
We collaborated with Dr. Kristen M. Kelly, a board certified dermatologist and Professor at University of California Irvine, to answer some of your questions about laser treatment for burn scars.
An expert in her field, Dr. Kelly completed a fellowship in photomedicine and biomedical optics at the Beckman Laser Institute. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, and her research has been funded by the Sturge Weber Foundation, Dermatology Foundation, and National Institutes of Health. Dr. Kelly lectures locally, nationally and internationally, and has authored numerous scientific papers and book chapters on dermatologic laser topics.
Laser Treatment for Burn Scars: A Practical Guide
Are you trying to decide if laser treatment is right for you? Got an appointment coming up and don’t know what to expect? Struggling to understand the medical jargon?
Or did you think lasers were just for light shows?
For anyone who wants to know more, this guide will outline three types of lasers used to treat burn scars. You’ll learn a little about how each laser works, what it does, and even how it feels.
Before diving in, it’s important to understand what laser treatments can do for burn scars – and what they can’t. Experts can use laser treatment to improve redness, irregularities, bumps, tightness, or discomfort. A laser can’t eliminate your scars or return your skin to its pre-injury appearance.
Here are three lasers that might be used on your scars:
1. Pulsed Dye Laser
How it works: These lasers target red structures. On skin, they’re used to target and remove unwanted blood vessels. Each time it fires, the laser treats a small area of skin (about ¼ to ½ inch).
How it’s used on scars: Improving redness and decreasing inflammation, which can result in decreased pain or discomfort
What to expect during treatment: Your doctor will use multiple pulses of the laser to treat the scar area. Each pulse feels like being snapped by a rubber band.
What to expect after treatment: Your skin will have bruised-looking circular areas. The color will depend on the laser settings, ranging from red to purple. Your skin can feel sunburned for a day or two, so your doctor may suggest ice or petroleum jelly to help with discomfort.
2. Fractional Laser
How it works: Fractional lasers help to normalize damaged tissue by targeting the water in your skin. Nonablative treatment works by heating up small columns of tissue, and ablative treatment consists of drilling tiny holes in your skin.
How it’s used on scars: Improving redness and evening skin that is irregular or bumpy from scarring
What to expect during treatment: A topical anesthetic will be applied to your skin about an hour before the procedure and wiped off before it begins. Depending on the brand of the laser (and there are many!), your doctor will stamp or roll it across your skin. Right away, you’ll experience redness and swelling. The tiny holes drilled during ablative treatment will cause areas of pinpoint bleeding. Your doctor might suggest ice and/or bandages to help with any discomfort.
What to expect after treatment: Tiny dark spots will appear on the treated area. Generally, these will peel off within a week. It’s important to let your skin heal, so don’t remove scabs and protect the treated areas from the sun. After ablative treatment, you might soak the treated area several times a day to prevent infection. If the treatment was on your face, your doctor may also prescribe medication.
3. Q-Switched Laser
How it works: Q-Switched lasers deliver a lot of light energy in a short period of time, breaking up pigment particles.
How it’s used on scars: Breaking up pigmented particles (asphalt, gunpowder, etc.)
What to expect during treatment: You might come in before the procedure so a topical anesthetic can be applied to your skin. When treatment begins, you’ll feel a sensation like being snapped with a rubber band. During the treatment, white spots will appear where the laser hits your skin. It won’t take long for them to fade.
What to expect after treatment: Over a period of several weeks or months, your body’s blood cells will clear away the broken-up pigment.
Wondering if laser treatment is right for you? Start by asking your physician. If they’re unfamiliar with laser treatment, visit www.aslms.org to find a laser surgeon in your area. Make sure to ask whether they have experience treating burn scars.
The Phoenix Society works with experts to provide our community with information about all aspects of recovery from a burn injury. To learn more about laser treatment, check out these resources:
- Burn Support Magazine: Each issue includes features on recovering burn survivors; articles about the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery; and information about burn prevention programs, safety legislation, and the burn community.
- My Experience with Laser Treatments on Burn and Graft Scars, by Kris Flaten, M Div.
- Lasers and Burn Scars: An Exciting New Era in Burn Reconstruction, by Pirko Maguina, MD.
- Lasers for Burn and Trauma Scar Rehabilitation: Giving Humans the Power to Heal by Themselves, by Jill Waibel, MD.
- Fractional Ablation Laser Therapy for Burn Scars, by Robert J. Spence, MD with Jill Waibel, MD.