Monthly Survey: Would you like to participate in Relationships Australia’s quick, two-minute survey? Yes No thanks

Dos and don’ts of burn emergencies

Young children burn faster than adults and the higher the temperature, the less time it takes. Water at 50C, which feels a bit hot but OK to grown-ups, will scald a child in five minutes. Compare that to less than a second when a hot drink spills on delicate skin.

Knowing how to treat a burn makes a big difference. Sadly, many children admitted to hospital haven’t had appropriate first aid. This makes burns worse and hospital stays longer.

It can be very stressful, but the best first aid is straightforward and easy to remember. Learn how to take the heat out of a burn and when to seek help, with this article by Family Forum health professionals.

Winter has set in. With cold weather comes hot water, heaters and fires. Knowing how to avoid burns and scalds or, in the worst case, provide first aid, is crucial.

Every year, more than 300 children are admitted to the Women’s and Children’s Hospital Emergency Department with burns or scalds.

Children aged under two are most at risk, with hot drinks, food, fats and cooking oils causing more than half of the hospitalised cases.

Scalds from hot liquid or steam commonly occur at home, often in the kitchen. Children are typically injured when pulling liquid down from a higher level, reaching for a cup of hot drink on a table, or removing hot liquid from a microwave.

The higher the temperature, the less time it takes to burn. At or above 70C it takes less than a second; at 60C one second; and at 50C five minutes.

The strongest evidence on preventing burns and scalds in children includes having a safe hot tap water temperature (below 50C), fitted fire guard, functional smoke alarm and fire escape plan. Education is also effective, especially when combined with safety equipment.

Despite efforts to minimise the risks, accidents do happen, so it is important to know first aid.

An Australian study found that only 22 per cent of people presenting to emergency with burns received correct first aid. This includes incorrect first aid delivered by health professionals.

First aid for burns and scalds is the same.

  1. The first step is removing the person and yourself from danger and stopping the burning process.
  2. Clothing retains heat and should be removed as soon as possible, unless it is stuck to the burn.
  3. Apply cool running water (about 15C) to the burn for 20 minutes.

Cooling reduces the severity of tissue damage, pain and swelling. In patients presenting to an emergency department with scald injuries, first aid treatment with cool water reduced burn severity, pain and scarring. Some benefit can still be achieved provided cool water is applied within the first three hours; the sooner the better. There is a risk of inducing hypothermia through the cooling process in children. While cooling the site of the scald or burn, the child needs to be kept warm with clothing or a blanket.

Seek medical attention immediately if the burn is bigger than a 20 cent coin, or is on the face, hands, feet or genital area.

In an emergency call 000 while you are cooling your child’s burned or scalded skin.

Never use butter, toothpaste, oils or ointments to cover the burn, as they may retain heat.

Do not use ice. Children can be dangerously chilled in ice water. Application of ice may deepen the wound and increase the risk of hypothermia.

Once you have cooled the burn for 20 minutes, you can cover it with cling wrap or a clean damp cloth while waiting for the ambulance, or on your way to the hospital. If you are using cling film to minimise pain and to keep the wound clean, it should be applied in layers and not wrapped around like a bandage.

For advice on helping make your home as safe as possible for children visit the Kid Safe SA website (, email: or phone (08) 8161 6318.

– The first aid management advice for this article was obtained from a Joanna Briggs Institute Evidence Summary.

Time taken for a serious scald in a child

Water from a boiling kettle (100C):Under 1 second
Cup of hot drink (70C-95C):Under 1 second
Hot tap water (60C):1 second
Hot water from tap with a regulator (50C):5 minutes


Submit Your Questions

Have you got a question you’d like us to tackle?

Fill out the form below or send questions to Family Forum, The Advertiser, 31 Waymouth St, Adelaide 5000.

We treat communications in strict confidence except when the law demands otherwise, as in child abuse.

Relationships Australia (SA) appoints panels of general practitioners, medical specialists, lawyers, therapeutic and financial counsellors to discuss each letter before the appropriate professional answers it.