Each season brings different activities and celebrations—and with them come an increased risk for different types of burn injuries. In the summer, there are firecrackers and campfires. In the winter, there are burning fireplaces and hot cocoa. But no matter what season it is, young children and toddlers are at increased risk of scalding burns from hot liquids.

“The majority of burns in young children are the result of scalding,” says Jennifer Seigel, pediatric nurse practitioner in Pediatric Acute Wound Services (PAWS) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. According to Seigel, a scalding burn occurs when contact with hot liquid or steam damages one or more layer of skin. People of all ages can be burned in 30 seconds by a flowing hot liquid that is 130 degrees. When the liquid is 140 degrees, it takes five seconds, and just one second at 160 degrees. In children younger than age 5, this time is even shorter.

“In the winter, we see a lot of scalding burns from hot tea or coffee,” Seigel says. “It happens in an instant—a small child can quickly pull a tea pot off the stove or grab a coffee mug off a table. Sometimes it’s the caregiver holding a hot drink and the child reaches for it—spilling and splashing over one or both of them.”

Seigel says while the majority of scalds are seen in younger children, older children may suffer scald burns as well.

“The children like to be independent and will heat something in the microwave—maybe soup or hot cocoa,” she says. “When they pull it out, they can easily spill it. Microwave popcorn can be dangerous too—the built-up steam in the bag can reach 180 degrees. Some of the more severe and more common burns we see are from ramen noodles. The noodles stick to the child’s skin and cause an even deeper, more penetrating burn than the liquid.”

How do you reduce your child’s risk of suffering a scalding burn? Seigel offers some tips on prevention, treatment and when to seek medical attention:

How can I keep my child safe from scalding burns?

  • Turn all pot/pan handles inward when cooking.
  • Provide a “kid-safe” zone while preparing and serving hot foods.
  • Keep children out of the kitchen when cooking.
  • If using a slow cooker, keep the cord out of reach.
  • Avoid carrying or picking up a child when holding hot liquids.
  • Set the table with hot dishes and liquids in the center of the table to avoid accidental spills. Avoid using tablecloths.
  • Warm infant bottles in warm water—do not microwave. Allow to cool before giving to the baby.
  • Don’t allow children to use a microwave by themselves until they are both tall enough to reach it safely and able to understand that steam can cause a burn.

Another common source of scalding injury occurs when bathing children:

  • Adequate and constant supervision is the single most important factor in preventing tap water scalds. Never leave a child unattended in a bath.
  • Set water heater thermostats to deliver water at a temperature no higher than 120oFahrenheit. If you live in a rental apartment/home, ask your landlord what the temperature is set at.
  • Turn the faucet to the “COLD” position when not in use if the tub has a single faucet handle.
  • Clearly mark the “HOT” water position on faucets.
  • Do not allow young children to adjust the water temperature. When bathing young children, seat the child facing away from faucets so he or she cannot reach the faucet. Turn the hot water off first.
  • Check the water temperature yourself or with a testing device before placing the child in the tub.

How do I treat a burn?

  • Remove the child from the heat source.
  • Cool the affected area with cool tap water or cold compresses until pain is reduced or alleviated. Do not apply ice or butter. These do not help the burn and can harm the tissue.
  • If a blister has formed, do not break it.
  • Protect the burn with a dry, clean, gauze bandage or with a clean bed sheet or cloth.
  • If your child’s clothing is stuck to the burned area, do not attempt to remove it. Instead, cut around the clothing, leaving the burn intact. Remove jewelry around or on the burn.
  • Do not apply any ointments, oils or sprays to the burned area unless prescribed by your doctor.

When should I seek medical attention for a burn?

  • If your child has a burn that crosses a joint, such as a knuckle or the wrist, see a doctor.
  • If your child has burns on the hand, foot, face, eyes or groin, or burn area larger than the child’s palm, seek medical attention or dial 911 for emergency medical attention.
  • If the burn is not healing or improving as expected, seek medical attention.

For more information about burn prevention contact the Family Resource Center at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

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