Even instantaneous pain was not quick enough to save the tens of thousands of skin cells burned by the hot handle of that coffee mug. Two small regions on the thumb and index finger turned white in seconds. Curdled like an egg white dropped into boiling water, the skin cells formed a mass of denatured protein, a kind of injury more difficult to repair than a minor cut. This is, no
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doubt, why heat so quickly causes intense pain. Skin with a minor burn heals readily because the mechanism that replaces epidermal cells remains ready to work, but deeper burns pose more difficult prob- lems. If a burn destroys the cells that replace the epidermis, special mechanisms are required to protect the site from infection, clear away the dead tissue, and infuse the region with new skin cells that can grow and gradually resurface the site of the bum. We can do it, but only with time and risk of infection. Far better to avoid the burn.