What are burns and scalds?
Both burns and scalds damage your skin through heat. Children can also be burnt by contact with very cold things such as dry ice.
A burn is caused by contact with dry heat, such as:
- a hot surface
Scalds are caused by contact with wet heat, usually a hot liquid, such as:
- water in a hot bath
- steam from a boiling kettle
Water can be hot enough to scald a child up to 30 minutes after being boiled.
Whether your child has a burn or scald, their injury is generally referred to as a burn. Burns can also affect the:
- respiratory system (airways and lungs)
Types of burns
A burn may be superficial or deep.
A superficial burn is usually more painful. This is because deeper burns can cause nerve damage that may stop your child from feeling some of the pain.
Superficial burns are usually red, while deeper burns can be dark red, pale yellow or a mottled mix of colour. Very severe burns may be white or charred.
How can I treat my child's burn?
All burns cause damage to your child’s skin and need first aid treatment.
If your child has a burn or scald, it's important to treat them as quickly as possible. Initial first aid treatment is the same for all burns.
First, you should follow the DRSABCD action plan. This includes removing immediate danger.
For example, if your child’s clothing is on fire, smother the flames with a woollen blanket. Don't beat or slap the flames as this could make the fire worse. Once any flames are put out, begin first aid.
Follow these steps for burn first aid:
- Check that your child is breathing properly.
- Run the burnt area under lots of cool (but not cold) running water for 20 minutes.
- Remove clothing or jewellery if you can. If it's stuck to the burn, do not try to remove it.
- Keep your child warm, as treating the burn with water can make them cold.
- Cover the burn with a loose, non-stick dressing such as a clean cloth, or plastic cling wrap.
- If needed you can give your child pain relief, such as paracetamol.
If the burn is serious or your child is obviously unwell, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance. The person who takes your call will tell you what to do until help arrives.
Call an ambulance or go to the hospital emergency department if:
- the burn is larger than a 20-cent piece (3cm)
- the burn is blistering
- the burn is on the face, hands or genitals
- the burn is to the throat or airways
- the burn is an electrical burn
- the burn is deep — even if your child isn’t in pain
- you are worried about your child
- your child has trouble breathing
What do I do if my child has a chemical burn?
If the burns are to the skin or eyes, wash the area with cool running water for 20 to 30 minutes. This will soothe the burn and dilute the chemical.
If your child has swallowed a harmful chemical, check that they can:
- breathe properly
- swallow properly
If you're not sure, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
Call the Poisons Information Line for advice as soon as you can on 13 11 16. The line is open 24 hours a day.
What do I do if my child has an electrical burn?
If you child has an electrical burn, remove the source of electricity. But, be careful not to put yourself in danger. Then, you should:
- check your child's breathing
- call triple zero (000) for an ambulance
Any child who has an electrical burn should be taken to hospital.
What treatments should I avoid if my child is burned?
If your child has a burn:
- DO NOT use ice to cool the area
- DO NOT apply lotions, creams or food such as butter
- DO NOT pop any blisters
How can I prevent burns and scalds?
If you have young children in your house, there is always a risk of them getting burnt or scalded. There are ways to reduce this risk.
Most burns to children occur at home. Other high-risk places include fireplaces in:
- camp sites
Follow these tips to help keep your kids safe.
Keeping the kitchen and dining areas safe
When you are in the kitchen or have hot food and drinks, you should always supervise your child.
In the kitchen:
- Keep hot drinks, hot liquids and chemicals out of your child’s reach.
- Store appliances such as microwaves and kettles out of your child’s reach.
- Refill your kettle with cold water after use.
- Avoid cooking or drinking hot drinks while holding or breastfeeding your baby.
- Don’t let appliance cords dangle in reach of your child.
- Use the back burners on the stove rather than the front ones, and turn pot handles towards the wall so your child can’t reach them.
- Keep children’s play areas out of the kitchen — consider a child safety gate to keep your child out of the kitchen while you’re cooking.
- Test the temperature of food and hot drinks before serving it — ‘hot' drinks for children should only be warm.
- Stir microwaved food well to distribute the hot spots.
- Use placemats rather than tablecloths, to avoid your child grabbing a tablecloth and pulling hot food onto themselves.
Keeping the bathroom safe
Like the kitchen, you should always supervise your young child when they are in the bathroom. Most hot tap water scalds occur in the home. They are often caused by bathwater heated to unsafe temperatures.
The temperature of your hot water system should be set at 50°C. You can talk to a licensed plumber about installing a device that will limit the water temperature.
You can also install child-resistant tap covers to prevent toddlers turning on the hot water tap.
When bathing or showering your child:
- Turn on the cold water first.
- Make sure the water is warm, not hot — it is recommended to bathe your child at 38°C.
- Always test the water first with your wrist or elbow, or use a thermometer.
- Supervise your child and keep them within arm’s reach.
Never leave a child alone in the bathroom. If you need to leave the bathroom, for example to answer the door, take your child with you.
Keeping the bedroom safe
Don’t use electric blankets on children’s beds. Electric blankets can cause children to overheat if left on for too long. Your child is also at risk of electrocution if they wet the bed.
Turn heaters off once children are in bed. If your child can get out of bed by themselves, you can:
- take the heater out of the room
- install a guard around the heater
Keep clothes and toys at least one metre away from heaters.
You should also:
- buy your children close-fitting sleepwear with a ‘low fire danger’ label
- keep bedside lamps out of their reach
Keeping the living area safe
In living spaces, be sure to:
- place guards or screens in front of fireplaces
- keep lighters, matches and candles out of your child’s reach
- wait until your child is asleep in their bedroom before doing any ironing
You should also be sure to check that your smoke alarms are working and up to date.
- Test them every month by pressing the test button.
- Replace the batteries in your smoke alarms every year.
- Replace smoke alarms every 10 years.
Keeping the garage and outdoor areas safe
If you are camping, make sure your children wear shoes. Keep them away from campfires and hot coals.
Make sure you:
- don’t use accelerants to light fires
- don’t leave fires unattended
- watch children around barbeques and fires
- secure outdoor gas heaters so they can’t fall over
- keep children away from lawn mowers
Be sure to check metal objects in hot weather so your child doesn’t burn themselves, such as:
- play equipment, especially slides
- seat belt buckles in the car
Resources and support
- Australian Red Cross, which runs a first aid course for babies and children
- St John Ambulance Australia, which runs a ‘Caring for kids’ course for parents, grandparents and carers
- Royal Life Saving Australia
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: May 2023