Dos and don'ts for burns and scalds

Berlin - When a person's skin comes into contact with intense heat, it is not only extremely painful but also very damaging to the tissue. Many burns and scalds are preventable, however. The difference between these two types of injury is not the severity but the cause: hot liquids and steam for scalds, and open fire as well as contact with hot, solid objects for burns.

"Scalds occur most frequently to children and the elderly," noted Bernd Hartmann, chief physician at the Burn Centre/Department of Plastic Surgery in Berlin's Trauma Hospital. A cup of hot tea that a child knocks over and spills onto his or her torso is "sufficient to scald 20 per cent of the body's surface area," he said.

Injuries also commonly result when children want to look into a pot on the stove, grab the handle and spill the contents onto themselves.

Such accidents can be minimised by taking precautions. "Don't use tablecloths. And, whenever possible, put pots and pans on back burners with their handles facing the back of the stove," advised Joerg Schriever, in charge of children's accidents at the Association of Paediatrics and Adolescent-Medicine Professionals (BVKJ) in Munich.

For the elderly, the most dangerous area of the home is the bathroom. If sanitary fixtures are not properly adjusted, excessively hot water often flows out of the tap. People with slow reactions are scalded. This can usually be prevented by changing the temperature setting or by installing a hot-water limiter in the tap.

Most burns are caused by an open fire. "The bulk of them are grill mishaps due to the use of a fire accelerant," Hartmann said. Other common burns occur by touching a hot stove or clothing iron, or by handling fireworks.

The first steps to take if you are burnt or scalded are: Get out of the danger zone and extinguish any open flames. If burns are extensive or deep, call an ambulance. And cool the injured area as quickly as possible. This reduces tissue damage.

"Hold the affected skin under running water - not ice cold, but warm," advised Stefan Osche, a first-aid expert for the German Red Cross in Berlin. Cold water can cause hypothermia, possibly hindering the healing process and putting considerable strain on circulation as well. "If the injury is extensive, the best thing to do is to cover it with a clean, water-soaked cloth," Osche said.

If the injured parts of the body are clothed, the clothing - in the case of a scald - must be removed very carefully after the injury has been initially cooled. In the case of a burn, remainders of clothing should be removed only if they are not stuck to the skin.

"With the exception of water, all aids are absolutely taboo. That goes for gel cushions kept in the freezer, salves, and also household remedies like flour or toothpaste," Schriever said.

Injured skin that is merely red and painful, and does not blister, generally heals quickly without medical treatment. "But if the affected area is the face, genitals or skin that moves constantly, such as that over joints, then a physician should be consulted," Osche said.

Medical treatment is also called for when burns cover more than 5 per cent of the body's surface area. To compare, the palm of one's hand makes up about one per cent. (dpa)