Tap Water and Scald Burns (part I)

September 25, 2012

One of the most common causes of burn injuries is scald injury. Hot water scalds is a common cause of scald injury in which a short exposure time can result in severe burns depending on the water temperature. Most scald burns happen in the home from exposure to hot water in the sink, showers or bathtubs. Scald burns can also happen at restaurants and other places. Scald burns can happen to anyone, the severity depends on the temperature of the liquid and the duration of exposure.

Scald burns can happen to anyone but there is a vulnerable population which can be affected that includes young children, elderly people and people with disabilities. Many people are unaware that it needs a short exposure period to hot tap water to cause serious burns. People at high risk of developing scald burns are:

  • Young children have thinner skin, this results in deeper and more severe burns. Children have greater body proportion that is exposed to a scalding substance.
  • Elderly people have thinner skin leading to deeper and more severe burns. Elderly people may also have other medical conditions that make them more liable to fall in the bathtub as well as decreased sensation of heat and poor microcirculation leading to slow release of heat from the burned tissue.
  • People with physical and cognitive disabilities
  • Crowded families and families with low socioeconomic status
  • Single parent and parents with poor education.
As a standard, the maximum temperature of water delivered to the tap by residential water heaters is 120 degree Fahrenheit (48 degree Celsius).

Temperature/scald burn:

113°F (45°C) lead to second degree burn in 2 hours and third degree burn in 3 hours
116.6°F (47°C) lead to second degree burn in 20 minutes and third degree burn in 45 minutes
118.4°F (48°C) lead to second degree burn in 15 minutes and third degree burn in 20 minutes
120°F (49°C) lead to second degree burn in 8 minutes and third degree burn in 10 minutes
124°F (51°C) lead to second degree burn in 2 minutes and third degree burn in 4.2 minutes
131°F (55°C) lead to second degree burn in 17 seconds and third degree burn in 30 seconds
140°F (60°C) lead to second degree burn in 3 seconds and third degree burn in 5 seconds

Hot beverages like coffee and tea are usually served at 160-180°F (71-82°C) and can cause instant burns when falling on the skin, these burns will require surgery.

This information is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice; it should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. Call 911 for all medical emergencies.


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