Every minute in the U.S. one person suffers scald burns or another type of burn injury serious enough to require hospitalization. That means today, nearly half a million people who are relatively healthy will sustain a serious burn injury before the end of the year.
Because many of these burn injuries are preventable, the American Burn Association has designated the first full week in February (Feb. 3-9) as National Burn Awareness Week, with a special emphasis on scald burns. Calling attention to burn injury risks and taking the proper preventative measures can spare thousands of people from burns, which can cause excruciating pain and lead to lifelong disabilities, disfigurement, and even death.
Children younger than 16 years old account for more than a quarter of all people admitted to U.S. hospitals every year for burn treatments. There are two reasons why the rate of pediatric burn injuries is so high.
First, children are more accident prone than most adults. Most pediatric burn injuries are caused by scald burns – exposure to hot liquids or steam, and most scald burn injuries occur in the home, in connection with the preparation and serving of hot food and beverages. Children pulling pots of boiling liquid from the stove or getting hold of other containers of hot liquid on tables and counters are some of the most common ways scald burns occur.
Second, children have thinner skin that burns faster and at lower temperatures than most adults. A cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, for example, is usually served between 160-180 degrees – enough to give a child a full thickness burn instantaneously when spilled. An adult, on the other hand, is much less likely to suffer a severe burn from the same spill if the liquid is immediately removed from the skin.
As with young children, older adults are more susceptible to burn injuries for the same reasons as young children. As people age, their skin thins, making it prone to burn quicker and at lower temperatures. The ability to feel heat may also diminish due to medical conditions or medications, so they may not realize that water is too hot until a burn injury has occurred.
Older adults may also have conditions that make them more susceptible to accidents – particularly to falls in the bathtub or shower or while carrying hot liquids.
According to the American Burn Association, the most common regulatory standard for the maximum temperature of water delivered by residential water heaters is 120 degrees F (48 degrees C). At this temperature, adult skin will suffer a full thickness burn after about five minutes of exposure.
When the temperature of a hot liquid is increased to 140 F/60 C it takes just five seconds or less for a serious scald burn to occur. At temperatures of 155 F/68 C, it takes a second or less of exposure for people of any age to suffer a severe burn injury.
Medical data indicate that the U.S. has a long way to go in raising awareness of scald burns, which are the focus of this year’s National Burn Awareness Week. From 2007 through 2017, the proportion of U.S. burn center admissions has continued to increase each year, from 29.8 percent to 34.7 percent.