In focus: Hot drink scalds

11 Sep 2012

What is the real impact of a scald on a child from a hot drink? This September, CAPT is rolling out a campaign to encourage parents to put hot drinks out of young children’s reach.

Hot drinks and child safety – on their own nothing remarkable, but when considered together, it’s a different matter. We’re all familiar with the ‘coffee banned from parents’ coffee morning’ type of headlines, and ‘health and safety gone mad’ story that follows. But it’s not only the journalist expressing this view – more worryingly, there’s often no shortage of parents lining up to complain.

Valerie Jackson’s not one of them.

Her life was turned upside-down when her 10-month old son, Gabriel, spilled a cup of hot tea on himself. Gabriel was crawling around, happily exploring the living room, when he grabbed the cup of tea and tipped it over himself. The scalding liquid went all over.

More about Gabriel later. The important point here is that unlike Valerie today, many parents don’t understand the risks, the impact or know how to prevent a serious scald from a hot drink.

If they did know, they’d move hot drinks out of children’s reach and serious injuries would be reduced. In this article we look beyond the headlines to illustrate the extent of the problem and the real impact it has on children and families. We hope that by gaining a better understanding of the issue, you will feel better informed to speak to parents about hot drinks scalds.

The scale of the problem

Hot drink scalds are one of the most common childhood injuries and the leading cause of children being admitted to burns services.

Every day, 45 children in the UK are taken to A&E departments with scalds from hot drinks – that’s 16,500 a year. In 2010-11 almost 1,200 children were admitted to hospitals across England and Wales with hot drink scalds.

As you’d expect, under 5s are most at risk, so they are the focus of our campaign and our resources. Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to scalds from hot drinks because their skin is much thinner than an adult’s. Most people are simply not aware that a mug of hot drink with milk, left standing for as long as 10 minutes, can still scald a baby or toddler in less than one and half seconds.

Also, at this age children are very inquisitive. The majority (6 in 10) of scalds in children under 5 are the result of the child reaching and pulling a hot drink down on themselves. And they’re just too young to understand danger or to follow or remember instructions reliably.

Accessible safety advice

It’s because hot drinks are the most common scenario that they feature in our Too hot to handle DVD. The mother in the film explains how she answered the door, leaving her baby daughter on her own for just a couple of seconds, and how in this short time her baby pulled the scalding drink down over herself.

Practical activities in the accompanying DVD support cards help parents understand for themselves just how long a hot drink stays hot enough to scald a young child and just how much of their body a mug of hot drink can cover.

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are three times more likely to be admitted to hospital with burns and scalds. So getting accessible safety advice to parents and carers is vital to both prevent hot drinks scalds and tackle inequality.

That’s why we also feature hot drink scalds in our picture-based booklets. While they’re a great universal resource, the booklets are especially helpful for disadvantaged parents with poor literacy.

The consequences of hot drink scalds

While that gives an indication of the scale and nature of the issue, the next step in engaging parents effectively is to illustrate what happens when a child is scalded by a hot drink.

Firstly, hot drink scalds can be extremely painful. Hospitals do all they can to make treatment as pain-free as possible, but the experience can still be traumatic.

While the majority of children admitted to hospital with a hot drink scald will recover well, with their skin returning to normal, some will be left with lifelong scarring.

In serious cases, the child may have to use moisturising creams every day and wear pressure garments for up to two years. In the minority of cases where a skin graft is needed, the child may need frequent hospital admissions for further treatment.

All of these factors can reduce confidence and affect schoolwork, friendships and relationships. Children with significant scarring may need psychological support to come to terms with their changed appearance.

But it’s not just the child who’s affected. Families suffer too. Serious scalds can create a lifetime of guilt for parents or other family members who feel responsible for the accident. If a young child is left with permanent scars, parents and siblings will have to help the child understand why they look different to other children and come to terms with their injuries as they get older.

If you want parents to see the real impact of hot drink scalds, show them the Hot Drinks Harm video, produced by North Bristol NHS Trust. Please note some people may find the end of the video shocking, as it depicts the scarring caused by a hot drink scald.

Costs to the NHS

And of course, there’s a huge cost to the NHS. A minor hot drinks scald, with no complications and covering less than 10% of a young child’s body, costs the NHS around £2,000 to treat. Who would have thought that a misplaced mug of tea or coffee could be so costly?

If it helps to make a case for funds for your prevention work, then we’ve done the financial analysis for managers and commissioners:

However we don’t think costs to the NHS are what incentivises parents to change their habits. Real-life case studies, on the other hand, are very effective. Which brings us back to Gabriel.

Gabriel’s story

Valerie’s husband Peter reacted quickly and took Gabriel to the bathroom to rinse him in cold water. Where the hot liquid had touched him, his skin was peeling away so his parents rushed him to hospital.

Gabriel had his wounds cleaned and as he was in a lot of pain, he was given morphine. The doctors found that the burns covered 10% of his body, so he was transferred to a specialist burns unit.

Gabriel spent two days in hospital and had to wear bandages for a long time. Three years on, Valerie says she’s delighted at how quickly her son recovered. The skin on Gabriel’s back and chest has been left discoloured and he has thick, permanent scarring under his arm, but his face, the most vulnerable area, was spared from the burns.

Valerie is very aware of how lucky Gabriel was to escape an even more serious injury: “He has no recollection of what happened to him and it is still too painful to acknowledge the reality. In the grand scheme of things, it has hardly affected his life. It could have been so much worse.”

It takes just seconds for a serious injury which could have a lifelong impact to happen. As Valerie testifies: “Everyone in the burns unit was there because of an accident. None of them were born that way and they hadn’t developed a disease to make them disfigured. In a split second their whole life changed.”

Support our hot drink scalds campaign

Please support our hot drink scalds campaign in any way you can. You have direct access to families like Valerie’s who need to be aware of the risks. In our experience, once parents know about the risks and consequences, they are very keen to take action.

CAPT’s message to parents is simple: always put hot drinks out of babies’, toddlers’ and young children’s reach.

To help get this message over to parents, we recommend you do one or more of the following:

1. Put up a poster* in your reception/waiting room/play area - it communicates the message in an instant: 

2. Use all those times you’re making or accepting hot drinks to talk about hot drinks safety. Then hand out a leaflet or a flyer to reinforce your message– they’re accessible and give essential safety and first aid advice. We’ve a leaflet on burns and scalds plus a flyer specifically on hot drink scalds:

3. Run a group session for parents on hot drink scalds using our Too hot to handle DVD resource pack – this pack makes delivering an interactive session for parents easy:

*Until 31 October 2012, buy a Too hot to handle DVD resource pack and get a Hot drinks can hurt me colour poster for your setting free of charge.

Take part in the campaign

Visit the campaigns section for free resources including a template press release and key messages for parents and carers: