Children are curious and like to explore their surroundings. They don’t know that hot water and hot drinks can cause burns. A child’s sensitive skin burns far more easily than adult skin. Burns and scalds are a major cause of serious injury in children from new born to 10 years old.
A severe scald can inflict a serious injury and may mean a long stay in hospital. It may also require painful skin grafts and years of treatment, and can result in permanent scarring. A severe scald over a large skin area can even cause death.

Causes of scalds

Scalds are burns from hot liquids or steam. Any hot substances can scald a child. Treat all hot things as if they are as dangerous as fire. In fact, everyday items used in and around the house cause the most scald injuries.

These include:

  • hot drinks such as cups of tea and coffee
  • water from saucepans, kettles, jugs or urns
  • hot food solids
  • coal ashes
  • friction burns – for example, treadmills
  • running hot water from taps, showers and bath water
  • lighters and matches
  • fat and cooking oil
  • steam and vapour.

Times when injuries are likely to happen

Children are most at risk when you as the Parent  are:

  • in a hurry, under a lot of pressure, busy or have too many things going on at the same time
  • entertaining
  • not feeling well
  • distracted
  • tired, or when your child is tired
  • away from home, visiting friends or family, or on holiday and out of routine.

Bathroom safety

The bathroom is one of the most hazardous rooms in the house for a baby or child. Scalds and burns can occur here, as well as falls and drowning. Most hot tap water scalds occur in the bathroom.

There are a number of ways to protect your child against serious injury in the bathroom. Some suggestions include:

  • Use a bath thermometer to make sure the bath’s water is always a safe and comfortable temperature. The recommended maximum water temperature for bathing young children is between 37 ºC and 38 ºC.
  • A soft bath spout cover and non-slip suction mini bath mats can help prevent falls in the bath.
  • Keep the bathroom door closed when not in use. You may wish to put a lock or restraint on the outside of the bathroom door (out of reach of children, but accessible to adults in case of emergency).
  • Always remain within arm’s reach of children in the bath.

Take the child with you if you have to answer the door or telephone.

When hot water is too hot

The average temperature of domestic hot water is approximately 60 ºC. A much safer temperature for domestic hot water is 50 ºC. This is because water at a lower temperature takes longer to cause injury. For example:

  • At 60 ºC, it takes one second for hot water to cause third-degree burns.
  • At 55 ºC, it takes 10 seconds for hot water to cause third-degree burns.
  • At 50 ºC, it takes five minutes for hot water to cause third-degree burns.

Turn your hot water down

To reduce the risk of injury to your child from hot water scalds, install a recommended device to control bathroom hot water to a maximum of 50 °C. Options include:

  • Tempering valves– these are fitted to the water pipeline and mix hot and cold water to a specific temperature, adjustable between 35 ºC and 50 ºC.
  • Hot water shutdown devices– these are fitted to the end of a tap and automatically cut off water flow once the water reaches the pre-set temperature.

Remember that the maximum bathing temperature recommended for young children is between 37 ºC and 38 ºC, so cold water still needs to be mixed with water from the hot tap.

Kitchen safety

Some simple steps you can take to prevent scalds in the kitchen include:

  • Never leave cooking unattended.
  • Always supervise your children in the kitchen.
  • Keep hot drinks and handles out of reach.
  • Put a baby down when drinking something hot.
  • Use non-slip place mats instead of tablecloths.
  • Turn handles of saucepans in towards the back of the stove, out of reach of small children.
  • Keep hot drinks away from the edge of the table or bench. You never know when the baby will be able to reach or when a crawling infant will start to toddle. Make it a habit from the moment they are born to keep hot drinks out of their reach.
  • Never carry hot drinks while children are playing underfoot. Make sure your care extends outside your home, when visiting relatives and friends or attending playgroups.
  • Use a cordless kettle to prevent a child pulling over the kettle, or make sure cords are well away from the edge. Empty any unused water out of the kettle after boiling.
  • Use the back hotplates on the stove before using the front ones.
  • Give toddlers their own special mug so they don’t drink from an adult mug or cup, which may contain liquid that is too hot.
  • Carry plates to pots, not pots to plates.
  • Your toddler may be safer in the playpen or in the highchair for a short time when you are very busy in the kitchen, or you could use a child safety gate.

First aid advice for burns

Stop the burning process, while considering your own safety.

Immediate first aid will reduce the severity of a burn. If someone has received a burn, you should:

  • Apply cool running water (not ice or iced water) to the burn for at least 20 to 30 minutes (useful for up to three hours after the burn).
  • Carefully remove wet clothing only if the skin is not blistered or stuck to the clothing.
  • Cover the burn using a sterile burn dressing (Burnshield), or a clean moist dressing
  • If the burn is severe or spread over a large area, keep the child warm and calm, and call an ambulance.
  • Burns that involve the face, hands, feet, genitals or bottom, or if the burnt area is larger than a fifty-cent piece, should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.

What not to do for burns and scalds

If a child is burned, there are a few things you should not do, including:

  • Never use butter, oils, toothpaste, egg white etc., nor ointments to cover the burn, as all of the above stick to the wound and retain the heat.
  • Never use ice. Children can be dangerously chilled in ice water.

Home safety and first aid advice

The Medical Education Center holds first aid courses for the public. The six-hour paediatric emergency care course is particularly helpful for parents, grandparents, nannies and childcare providers. Contact our training department on 021 713 0005 for details.