By Raising Children Network
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Scalds are the most common type of burn in young children. In fact, a hot cup of tea or even a bath that’s too hot can scald and burn your child, just like a fire can.

Graph scalds

Facts about scalds

Hot drinks are the major cause of scalds. A freshly poured hot drink will burn a child instantly. Other common causes include boiling water, hot tap water and hot baths, as well as hot food, soups and sauces. Hot water can scald up to half an hour after it’s been boiled.

Children under two are most at risk of scalds from hot liquids in kettles, teapots, saucepans and cups.

It takes less than a second for a child to be severely scalded with hot water at 65°C – this is the hot-water temperature in most Australian homes. The maximum safe temperature for your hot-water system is 50°C. At this temperature, it takes five minutes to severely scald a child.

The safe bath temperature for newborn babies is around 36°C, and for older children is between 37°C and 38°C. Grown-ups tend to have baths in water between 41°C and 42°C. 

The best way to prevent burns and scalds is to keep hot drinks and other hot liquids away from your child.

Tips for preventing scalds 

In the kitchen and dining room, these simple safety precautions will help protect your child from scalds:

  • Set the temperature of your hot-water system to 50°C.
  • Keep kettles, teapots and hot drinks at the back of the bench or centre of the table so your child can’t reach them.
  • Make sure kettle cords don’t hang down within reach of your child. Use appliances with short cords so your child can’t use the cord to pull the appliance closer.
  • Put your baby down when you’re drinking something hot. Your child can move quickly and unexpectedly, which means that sipping a hot drink while holding your child could lead to burns.
  • Use spill-proof mugs with wide bases and narrow rims. This reduces the risk of scalds – but it doesn’t get rid of the risk altogether.
  • Use placemats instead of a tablecloth to help stop hot food and drinks spilling on your child. Children sometimes tug on tablecloths to see what’s on the table or to pull themselves up, bringing everything down on top of them. 
  • Use the back burners on the stove. Turn pan handles towards the back of the stove.
  • Carry plates to the pans on the stove, instead of carrying hot pans across the kitchen to the plates.
  • Test the temperature of soups, stews and other liquid-based dishes before serving them. Stir microwaved foods to even out any hot or cold spots, but still test the temperature before serving.
  • Teach your child about the dangers of hot things.

First aid for scalds and burns

Seek immediate medical attention for any burn bigger than a 20-cent piece. Call an ambulance for any burns to the face, airway, hands, neck or genital area, or burns that are larger than a child’s hand. If you’re not sure how severe the burn is, contact a doctor, hospital or medical centre immediately.

Follow these steps for a child with a scald:

  1. Make sure the area is safe, and that there’s no further risk of injury. Take the child to a safe place if possible.
  2. Take off the child’s clothing immediately, but only if it isn’t stuck to the skin. Remove any watches or jewellery the child’s wearing – but only if you can do so without causing any more pain or injury.
  3. Treat the burn with cold tap water only. Cool the burned area under running cold tap water for a minimum of 10 minutes, and no longer than 20 minutes. This will reduce tissue damage and pain. This is useful for up to three hours after the burn. Hold the child to provide comfort and warmth.
  4. Cover the burn with a loose, light, non-sticky dressing, such as plastic wrap or a clean, wet cloth. Raise burned limbs.

Call an ambulance if the burn is:

  • to the face, neck or genital area
  • larger than the size of the child’s hand.

Definitely go to the doctor or to a hospital or medical centre if:

  • the burn or scald is the size of a 20-cent piece or larger
  • the burn looks raw, angry or blistered
  • the burn is deep, even if the child doesn’t seem to feel any pain
  • the pain persists or is severe.

Things not to do with scalds and burns

Don’t peel off any clothing that’s stuck to the burn. Don’t break any blisters.

Don’t apply ice, iced water, lotions, moisturisers, ointments, creams or powders to the burn. These will only need to be removed to treat the burn properly. Butter or flour can make the damage worse.

If the burn’s large, don’t cool it for longer than 20 minutes. This is because hypothermia can happen quickly in children.

  • Last updated or reviewed 10-01-2011