The Medical Minute: Simple ways to avoid getting burned

February 04, 2004

By John Messmer, M.D.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

Government statistics count 16,000 injuries and 3,000 deaths annually from fires. Thousands more are burned by hot water, the leading cause of burn injuries and tragically, most of these are children, the elderly and disabled. Fortunately there are some simple things you can do to reduce the likelihood of these accidents.

Because young children are not aware of most dangers in the home, adults must plan ahead. To reduce the chance of a burn in the bath (not to mention drowning), never leave a child unattended. Children might burn themselves when they turn on the hot water while standing under the tap. Water temperatures of 140 degrees can cause a serious burn in just 5 seconds, so set your hot water heater thermostat to 125 degrees. At that temperature, it takes more than 30 seconds of exposure to cause a burn. Water need be only 100 degrees to be comfortable -- be sure to check it yourself by swirling the water with your hand for a few seconds before placing a child into the tub.

Consider installing a small slide bolt lock at the upper part of the bathroom door so children can not get to the tub on their own. Some authorities actually recommend against playing in the tub so small children do not see it as a play area.

It is also worth noting that the elderly, diabetics and those with poor circulation can be as susceptible to hot water burns as children. If you are a caregiver to a person who fits into one of these categories, take the proper precautions.

Remember, too, that coffee and tea are often over 180 degrees when served -- hot enough to cause a serious burn instantly -- so keep cups and pots well away from where children can reach them. Avoid tablecloths which a child can pull, causing a spill.

Microwave cooked food is heated unevenly. Stir the food before serving children and check the temperature first. You should never microwave baby formula because it can be hotter than it seems. If you must use the microwave, shake the bottle, wait a minute and test the temperature first. Place your microwave oven high enough that children cannot reach it until they are old enough to understand the risks. Keep children away from you while you remove food from ovens and stoves in case you drop it. Use the back burners first and do not tempt children by storing snacks on or above the stove.

If you don't have a smoke detector, get one today! If you have a larger house, get several and test them the beginning of each month. If you or family sleep with the bedroom door closed, put one in each of the bedrooms. Change the batteries twice a year when daylight savings time starts and stops. Plan two ways to get out of the house from every room and be certain everyone in the family remembers the plan.

Use only fire resistant sleepwear for your children, but check the label to be sure it is fire retardant. Be wary of loose fitting clothing around gas stoves or other open fires. Teach children to respect a "no zone" three feet away from ovens, fireplaces, space heaters and other heat sources. Speaking of fires, if you burn incense, candles or heat potpourri with a flame, use only fireproof containers. Extinguish all flames before leaving the room or going to bed and pour water on ashtrays before emptying them.

Electric appliances and power cords can be a major source of fires. Keep appliances in good repair and replace cords that are cracked or separating. Damaged cords and appliances can spark or short circuit without warning. Do not overload plugs and cords. When you exceed the capacity of the cord or outlet, it can heat or spark. Safely coil your cords rather than letting them dangle where children can pull on them, particularly hot appliances such as clothing irons and curling irons.

Take care with flammable liquids and gases storing them outside of your home. Refuel space heaters and gasoline engines after they have cooled and are not running. Use only recommended fuel for heaters and charcoal barbecues. Do not use gasoline for heaters and barbecues -- it burns with too much flame and is explosive. Avoid burning papers or trash in fire places.

Despite your best efforts, an accident could happen, so be prepared by understanding how to deal with it. If you or your clothing catch fire, stop the burning process by dropping and rolling or if someone else is burning, get them to the ground and roll them. Flush off hot liquids or oils with cool water. Authorities recommend against applying ice, but small burned areas can be treated with iced water to cool the tissues and stop the burning. Then wrap the area with plastic wrap and get medical attention. Do not apply ointments, first aid creams or the like -- if you are getting medical attention, they get in the way. Never use "home remedies" for burns. Putting butter on a burn, for example, is an old wives tale that will do more harm than good. For extensive burns, call 911. In the case of bad burns, intravenous fluids are needed quickly and paramedics can save time by starting treatment.

Burns are painful and can be disfiguring and lethal. Take time now to prepare yourself so as to avoid injury.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009