‘Split second’ to scald injury

Chances are you’ve enjoyed a coffee or a nice hot cup of tea sometime today, but did you know that this seemingly harmless activity is a leading cause of injury to young children?

The Royal Children’s Hospital’s burns clinical nurse consultant Kathy Bicknell said scald burns were the number one cause of burn injuries in toddlers, with mainly tea and coffee pulled off benches causing burns to the face, neck, shoulders and chest.

“So often parents will say ‘I was standing right beside them and I just turned to get the sugar’,” Kathy said. “It’s just that split second and then their lives are in upheaval until their child’s burns have healed.”


There are a couple of categories that burns fall into: scald, flame, contact, friction, and chemical.

No matter the source or type of burn, the treatment is the same.

“Twenty minutes of cool running water is the gold standard of first aid for burns,” Kathy said. “It doesn’t have to be all at once. You’ve got three hours from the time of the injury for it to still be effective.”

Following the cool water, you can cover the burn in cling wrap temporarily. This will help keep the burn clean and can help with the pain. Never put creams, food items or toothpaste on the burn.

For a burn larger than 3cm, Kathy said it was appropriate to go to a GP, call an ambulance or visit an emergency department.

“If it’s deep, if it looks white, if it’s large, or if it’s on a hand or the face then they should come into emergency,” Kathy said.  “Because just a small, deep burn on a finger on a child can have consequences years down the track.”

For those living far from the RCH, Kathy said it was best to see a GP or a local hospital to get an assessment. She said while emergency treatment was not always needed, children often needed to be referred on to the RCH’s burns clinic.


When it comes to preventing a burn injury, Kathy said kitchens were the number one place for accidents to happen.

“We’ll often get children who have run in when mum was carrying a pot from the stove to the sink to tip out water, and they bump into the child and the liquid goes over the child,” Kathy said.

“We would encourage people to teach their child not to go into the kitchen while they’re cooking or preparing anything,” she said, adding that playpens were useful when children were little.

Other injury hotspots were fireplaces and camping sites. When camping, Kathy said it was common for kids to walk through old coals that were often still hot from the day before, and get burnt feet. Fireplaces or heaters with glass-fronted doors were also a common source of injury.

“Whether they’re wood or gas, little ones crawl over and put their hands on them. They have a slower reaction time so they have a longer contact time, and that’s why they get a deeper burn.”

Sarah Wawrzyniak from the RCH’s Community Information service said education and taking a few minutes to check your home and surroundings was the best way to prevent burn injuries.

“The RCH has a range of fact sheets online that you can read to learn more about making your home safe and preventing injuries like burns,” Sarah said. “And doing a paediatric first aid course can be invaluable in case of an emergency.”

If your child has received a burn, run cold water on the burn for 20 minutes. If it’s deep, white or bigger than 3cm see a GP or your closest hospital. You can read more about safety around the home in our Safety Centre fact sheets at http://www.rch.org.au/safetycentre/fact_sheets/.

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