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Scalds and how to prevent them

Scalds often occur when young children mimic adult behaviour. These injuries can be caused by pulling down hot drinks off tables, reaching up to grab handles of pots and pans, or by playing with the taps in the bath.

According to the World Health Organization, around US$26 million is spent annually in South Africa to care for burn incidents. Indirect costs such as lost wages, prolonged care for deformities and emotional trauma, and commitment of family resources, also contribute to the socio-economic impact.

“Scalding is what you would classify as thermal burns from direct heat applied to the area, says Ryan Wills, Training Manager in Emergency Medical Care at ER24.  One universal way to treat a scald is to run it under clean water. It doesn’t specifically have to be cold water; it can be cold to lukewarm water.

“Flushing under running water for one to two minutes helps clean the area for contaminants obviously, but it also helps to cool down the area, which helps reduce the pain and inflammation resulting from the injury,” Wills explains.

He advises not to place any ice on the area because this will worsen the injury. It’s also important not to touch the wound directly with your hands, as this could infect the wound. As a child, you may have had a friend or family member advised to apply butter or toothpaste to a scald, this is incorrect. This retains the heat and makes the injury worse. Only cool running water or a pharmaceutical burn dressing should be applied. “When anything other than water is applied to the injury, contaminants start to harden around the wound which not only contaminates the area and makes it difficult to clean, it also aggravates the injury.”

After using clean running water to cool the wound, cover it with a light gauze dressing. This will protect the area until you get professional medical attention. If you don’t have an appropriate dressing on hand, rather leave it uncovered. “It’s important to visit a health facility because these wounds get infected very easily,” Wills cautions.

If the scalding is severe, call ER24 on 084 124 for real help, real fast. Paramedics will perform the same process: remove any clothes, flush the area with clean water, and dress the wounds to keep them clean and sterile. “Depending on the surface area of the scald, they might give some fluid and analgesia via a drip to stabilise the patient and treat their pain,” Wills explains. “If needed, the paramedics will transport the patient to the most appropriate or accessible health facility.”

To prevent scalds in the home, never leave children unattended. “If you’re cooking on a stovetop, always use the plate of the stove that’s furthest away from the edge. Little children are less likely to touch a hot plate or pull down a pot onto themselves – unfortunately, these are injuries we see often,” Wills advises. “They like to grab onto something to pull themselves up, so if you’re using a saucepan or frying pan, ensure the handle is faced away from the edge of the counter out of reach.”