Young and old still at risk scalds and burns

Fifteen elderly people died and more than 400 were treated for burn and scald injuries in Victorian hospitals over two years, a new Monash University Accident Research Centre report has revealed.

The latest edition of Hazard, published by the Victorian Injury Surveillance and Applied Research Unit (VISAR), also showed that more than 1700 young children were treated for burn and scald injuries during the same period.

Senior researcher Ms Erin Cassell said although burns and scalds in the very young and very old had decreased in recent years, more work was needed to further protect the most vulnerable members of the community.

The report analysed data on death and hospital treated for burns and scalds between July 2001 and June 2003.

"Burns and scalds are among the most distressing injuries that a child can receive. Although rarely fatal in children, they may cause considerable pain, need prolonged treatment and can result in lifelong disfigurement," Ms Cassell said. "Elderly burn patients are more likely to suffer serious injuries or die, though the combination of frailty and late admissions could partly explain this phenomenon."

More than 70 per cent of burns and scalds to young children occurred in the home from hot tea and coffee or other hot fluid (usually heated water, not tap water). The most frequently injured parts of the body were the arms and hands followed by the head, face, neck and trunk.

Scalds among the elderly were mainly from hot fluids (usually boiling water), contact with hot drinks and running hot water, such as during a shower. Eight of the 15 deaths were caused by smoke, fire or flames, and the other seven from scalds from hot fluids.

The report recommended burn and scald prevention education and media campaigns, including appropriate first aid.

"Burns and scalds are among the most costly of non-fatal injuries in terms of ongoing medical care and rehabilitation and psychological costs due to scarring and disfigurement," Ms Cassell said.

"If we're serious about further reducing the burden of burns and scalds on the most vulnerable groups in our community, we need to combine education, publicity, regulation and enforcement, incentives and safety design innovations."

The report showed that hot tap water scalds had decreased since the introduction of maximum temperature regulations on new hot water systems in 1994. But Ms Cassell said they were still a major cause of injuries - and caused six of the 15 deaths in older people.

"Distressing cases included an 88-year-old woman who accidentally turned the hot tap on herself when showering, and a 93-year-old man who hit the hot water tap as he fell in the shower, turning it to boiling," she said.

"Older, existing hot water systems can last up to 15 years and still pose a hazard - we need to remind people that thermostats can be turned down or to install devices to control the temperature at the taps."

Ms Cassell said other measures to help reduce burns and scalds in the very young and elderly include:

  • the use of spill-resistant tea and coffee mugs around young children and by elderly people
  • the use of stove guards and safety gates or playpens to keep young children away from the kitchen area during cooking
  • the use of heater guards, especially for the frail elderly at risk of falls
  • further promotion of smoke alarms with 10-year batteries, possibly subsidised for low-income households with young children, people aged over 65, and people with disabilities

The full report can be viewed online.

 

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