Burns are injuries caused by heat, electricity, friction, chemicals, or radiation. Steam burns are caused by heat and fall into the category of scalds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines scalds as burns attributed to hot liquids or steam. They estimate that scalds represent 33 to 50 percent of Americans hospitalized for burns.

According to the American Burn Association, 85 percent of scald burns occur in the home.

Steam burns can be underestimated, because a burn from steam might not look as damaging as other types of burns.

Research on pig skin by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology showed that steam can penetrate the outer layer of the skin and cause severe burns on lower layers. While the outer layer does not appear to be severely damaged, the lower levels can be.

The severity of a scalding burn injury is a result of the:

  • temperature of the hot liquid or steam
  • amount of time that the skin was in contact with the hot liquid or steam
  • extent of body area burned
  • location of the burn

Burns are classified as first degree, second degree, or third degree based on the damage done to the tissue by the burn.

According to the Burn Foundation, hot water causes a third degree burn in:

  • 1 second at 156ºF
  • 2 seconds at 149ºF
  • 5 seconds at 140ºF
  • 15 seconds at 133ºF

Take these steps for emergency care of a scald injury:

  • Separate the scald victim and the source to stop any additional burning.
  • Cool scalded area with cool (not cold) water for 20 minutes.
  • Do not apply creams, salves, or ointments.
  • Unless they’re stuck to the skin, remove clothing and jewelry on or near the affected area
  • If face or eyes are burned, sit upright to help reduce swelling.
  • Cover burned area with a clean dry cloth or bandage.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency number.

Young children are the most frequent scald injury victims, followed by older adults and people with special needs.


Every day, over 300 children aged 19 and younger are treated in emergency rooms for burn-related injuries. While older children are more likely to be injured by direct contact with fire, younger children are more likely to be injured by hot liquids or steam.

According to the American Burn Association, between 2013 and 2017 American emergency rooms treated an estimated 376,950 scald burn injuries associated with consumer household products and appliances. Of these injuries, 21 percent were to children 4 years old and younger.

Many young children are more likely to be injured by scalding because of their natural child characteristics, such as:

  • curiosity
  • limited understanding of danger
  • limited ability to react quickly to contact with hot liquid or steam

Children also have thin skin, so even brief exposure to steam and hot liquids can cause deeper burns.

Older adults

Like young children, older adults have thinner skin, making make it easier to get a deeper burn.

Some older people may have a higher risk for being injured by scalding:

  • Certain medical conditions or medications decrease the ability to feel heat, so they might not move away from the steam or hot liquid source until they are injured.
  • Certain conditions might make them more prone to falls while carrying hot liquids or in the proximity of hot liquids or steam.

People with a disability

People with a disability might have conditions that make them more at risk while moving potential scalding material, such as:

  • mobility impairments
  • slow or awkward movements
  • muscle weakness
  • slower reflexes

Also, changes in a person’s awareness, memory, or judgment could make it difficult to recognize a dangerous situation or respond appropriately to remove themselves from danger.

Here are some tips for reducing the risk of common household scalds and steam burns:

  • Never leave items cooking on the stove unattended.
  • Turn pot handles toward the rear of the stove.
  • Do not carry or hold a child while cooking at the stove or drinking a hot beverage.
  • Keep hot liquids out of the reach of children and pets.
  • Supervise or restrict children’s use of stoves, ovens, and microwaves.
  • Avoid using tablecloths when children are present (they can tug on them, potentially pulling hot liquids down on themselves).
  • Use caution and look for potential trip hazards, such as children, toys, and pets, when moving pots of hot liquids from the stove.
  • Avoid using area rugs in the kitchen, especially near the stove.
  • Set your water heater’s thermostat to below 120ºF.
  • Test bath water before bathing a child.

Steam burns, along with liquid burns, are categorized as scalds. Scalds are a relatively common household injury, affecting children more than any other group.

Steam burns often look like they have done less damage than they actually have and should not be underestimated.

There are specific steps you should take when dealing with a scald from hot liquids or steam, including cooling the injured area with cool (not cold) water for 20 minutes.

There are also a number of steps you can take in your home to lower the risk of scald injuries, such as turning pot handles toward the rear of the stove and setting your water heater’s thermostat to a temperature below 120ºF.