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A burn that’s caused by hot water or steam is known as a scald. Many scalds can be treated at home. However, larger or more serious scald injuries can be dangerous and require immediate medical attention.

If you’ve ever sipped a hot cup of coffee or washed dishes with hot water, you may have experienced a hot water burn. Many burns are caused by dry heat from a fire, hot iron, or stove. A burn caused by something wet — like steam or hot water — is called a scald.

According to the Burn Foundation, more than 500,000 scald burns happen in the United States each year. Children under the age of 5 and elders over the age of 65 are at the most risk for these burns.

Hot water scalding can cause pain and damage to the skin from moist heat or vapors. This type of burn can be dangerous because it destroys affected tissues and cells. Your body may even go into shock from the heat. In more serious cases, these burns can be life-threatening.

Scalds can be accidental or not, but many can be prevented. They’re often caused by minor accidents when you are in a hurry or under pressure. For example:

  • You can scald yourself by spilling a hot beverage or soup on your skin.
  • Steam from the oven or microwave can also burn you if you are too close.
  • Tap water burns are more likely if your water heater is set above 120°F.

Scald burns are especially common in the restaurant industry. In a restaurant kitchen, water temperature has to be kept high to prevent bacterial overgrowth and to properly clean cookware.

A spill or accident can cause a serious scald injury in a matter of seconds.

Scalds or boiling water burns can be painful and dangerous. The severity of your symptoms depends on the seriousness of your burn.

There are four categories of burns based on the degree of damage to your skin:

  1. Superficial epidermal burn. This burn affects the outer layer of your skin (epidermis). You may experience some redness, swelling, and pain.
  2. Superficial dermal burn. This scald reaches your second layer of skin (dermis), affecting your nerve endings, blood vessels, and hair follicles. Your skin may be pale pink, and you’ll experience some pain and mild blistering.
  3. Deep dermal/partial-thickness burn. Similar to a superficial dermal burn, with this burn, the first two layers of skin are damaged. Your burn will either be extremely painful or painless. Your skin will turn red, with or without moisture. You may also experience swelling and blistering.
  4. Full-thickness burn. This burn is the most serious, affecting all three layers of your skin (epidermis, dermis, and subcutis). A full-thickness burn may be categorized as a third-degree burn, and it requires immediate medical attention. You may experience a change in skin texture from smooth to leathery or waxy. Your skin will be burnt away, and the burn may blacken your tissues.

If you begin experiencing chills or if your burn covers more than a three-inch area, seek immediate medical attention.

Many scalds can be treated at home. These first aid tips can help you treat a boiling water burn or injury:

  • Remove the heat source to prevent further injury.
  • Apply cool running water to cool the area for at least 20 minutes. Don’t use ice, iced water, or greasy substances. Keep the person warm during this process to maintain appropriate body temperature.
  • If the burn covers a large portion of the body, don’t submerge yourself in cool water. This could cause you to lose body heat and further aggravate the injury.
  • Remove any jewelry or clothing near the affected area to reduce the temperature on the skin and allow room for swelling. If items are stuck to the burn, don’t remove them. This can cause further damage.
  • Cover the burn with a moist bandage or clean cloth. Here’s a selection of moist burn pads that can protect scalded skin.
  • If possible, elevate the burned area above heart level.
  • Don’t break any blisters.

Scald burns take time to heal. While mild cases can take days, more severe cases can take weeks to fully heal.

If you begin to notice shock symptoms or signs of infection, or if your burn is larger than three inches, seek immediate medical attention.

Many hot water burns are preventable. As with other dangerous substances, hot liquids require an extra level of attention, especially with children around.

These tips can help prevent scalds and further injury:

  • Before placing a child in the bathtub, test the water temperature with your hand or elbow.
  • Supervise young children near sinks and faucets that are easy to turn on.
  • Monitor the temperature of your hot water heater. Don’t let it exceed 125°F.
  • Keep hot liquids out of children’s reach.
  • When boiling water, move the pot to a burner furthest from the edge.
  • Take your time when fixing meals to prevent spills.

Scald injuries are slow-healing burns caused by moist heat. While many of these burn cases can be treated at home, severe cases can be life threatening.

If your scald burn is larger than three inches or covers more than one portion of your body, seek immediate medical attention.

With adequate supervision, scald burns can be preventable. If you have small children, set boundaries to keep them out of the kitchen away from danger.