Kids Health Info

Burns – prevention and first aid

  • Burns and scalds are a leading cause of injury to young children, with toddlers most at risk because of their increased mobility and natural curiosity.

    There are six main types of burns: scalds (caused by hot liquids, foods or steam), flame, contact (with hot objects e.g. heaters, or with very cold objects e.g. dry ice), friction, chemical and electrical.

    The main cause of burns in young children is scalds caused by hot foods and drinks, steam and liquids. Children are commonly scalded by hot food and drinks (e.g. tea, coffee, soups, noodles) that have been pulled down off benches. This can result in serious burns to the face, neck, chest, and shoulders.

    All burns can be serious. Even small burns, depending on where they occur, can have long-term consequences for your child. Severe burns often require ongoing physiotherapy and multiple surgeries.

    Ways to prevent burns and scalds

    Burn injuries often occur in the home, most often in kitchens and bathrooms, but other high-risk places include fireplaces and camping sites. By taking a few minutes to make your home and environment as safe as possible, you could prevent a life-changing injury.

    In the kitchen

    • Always supervise your child in the kitchen, and if possible encourage them to stay out of the kitchen while you are cooking or preparing meals. If you have a toddler, consider installing a child safety gate to keep them out while you are cooking.
    • Keep your child away from hot foods and liquids (e.g. tea, coffee, soups, noodles). Keep hot drinks and foods out of reach.
    • Store the kettle and cord away from the edge of the bench, and turn pot handles in so that children can’t reach them.

    In the bathroom

    • The temperature of hot water delivered to basins, baths, and showers should not exceed 50°C (a licensed plumber can set the temperature correctly).
    • Always test the water before letting your child get in the shower or bath.
    • Fill the bath with cold water first, then add the hot water.

    Around the home and outdoors

    • Install fixed firescreens or heater guards around open or glass-fronted fires and heaters.
    • Keep lighters, matches and open flames (e.g. candles, decorative alcohol-fuelled devices, ethanol burners) out of reach.
    • Check your smoke alarm is in working order. Test batteries every month, and replace them every year at the end of daylight savings.
    • Always supervise children when camping. Keep your child away from campfires and coals and make sure they always wear shoes outside. Campfire coals can often still be hot from the day before – always use water (not sand) to cool them.

    First aid for burns and scalds

    Treatment is the same for all burn injuries.

    As soon as possible, hold the burn under cool running water for 20 minutes only. This is useful for up to three hours after the burn. Remove clothing or jewellery that is not stuck to the burn, being gentle not to further damage the skin. Sometimes you will need to cut clothing to remove it. It’s important to try to keep your child as warm as possible and just target the burn with the cool water.

    If the burn is minor and has not caused the skin to blister or break, and your child seems settled, there is no need to see a doctor. For all other burns, seek medical assistance.

    You should seek medical help immediately if:

    • the burn is deep, even if your child does not feel any pain
    • the burn is larger than 3 cm or has blisters
    • the burn is on the face, hands or genitals
    • the burn is to the throat or airway
    • you are concerned or unsure about the injury.

    Cover the burn with a loose, non-stick dressing (sterile non-stick dressing or plastic cling film) until your child is seen by a doctor. However, do not keep plastic cling film on for more than an hour. The doctor may apply a new dressing, which will keep the burn clean and help to reduce pain.

    Do not use ice to cool the burn as this may make the burn worse. Never apply any lotions, creams or food items (including egg whites, butter, toothpaste, potato). Cool running water is best.

    Call an ambulance immediately if your child has a severe burn injury.

    Key points to remember

    • Always supervise children in the kitchen, and keep hot food and drinks out of reach.
    • Limit the temperature of hot water that reaches your bath and shower to 50°C.
    • Use cool running water to treat a burn as soon as possible and seek medical attention.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    Should I put a burn cream from the pharmacy on my child's burn?

    The most important immediate treatment for a burn is cool, running water. Your child's doctor or nurse will advise the best dressings for the wound to maximise healing and minimise scarring. Mild burns (e.g. sunburn) can respond to over-the-counter gels, like aloe vera. 

    Should I put my child under cool water or take them straight to hospital? 

    It is important to cool the burn as soon as possible, as this helps reduce the pain and will minimise any further burn damage. For serious burns, if possible, call for an ambulance while you are cooling the burn. The cool water should be continued for 20 minutes before taking your child to hospital. 

    What should I do in the event of a chemical burn? 

    It is important to irrigate (wash-out) any chemical burns with large amounts of water. If a burn occurs in or near the eyes, wash the area with water or normal saline as much as possible.


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Burns Unit. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed August 2018.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.

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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.