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Home : News : News
NEWS | March 7, 2018

Know the difference between a scald and burn

By Richard S. Campos 502nd Civil Engineer Squadron

Most of us may be aware what the impact a first-, second- or third-degree burn can cause on the human body. But the majority of us are unfamiliar on what scalding can have. Scalding recognition and prevention are not widely discussed as much as burns.

What’s the difference between a burn and a scald? Recognizing the difference of these two injuries will help you decide if the pain you or a family member is experiencing is a burn or a scald.

With no solid definition, burns can be complex injuries even in its simplest terms. A burn can be described as damage to skin cells and tissue caused by either fire, heat, electricity, chemical, radiation, light or friction. Damaging muscle and fat can occur if the burn is severe. It can even reach the bone if it’s deep enough.

Scalds may only damage layers of skin, unlike burns, that can cause major deep tissue damage. Superficial, or first-degree burns, are associated with scalds. But if it can be considered severe enough, it can be as fatal as a third-degree burn and may even lead to death.

When a portion of skin is exposed to a hot liquid or steam, scalding occurs. A scalding is often caused by hot bath water, hot food, cooking fluids like grease or a hot drink. The effect of a scalding injury can be devastating. The results of a scalding injury may require skin grafting, and can have deadly consequences if not treated in time.

“In the United States, burns from hot tap water result in about 1,500 hospital admissions and 100 deaths per year” as reported by U.S. News and World Reports. The variance between a scald being a minor burn or being deadly are determined by several factors:

  • Sustained exposure to the hot substance.
  • Substance temperature.
  • Nature of the substance, is it sticky? Does it retain heat?
  • Extent of body area scalded.
  • Scald location.

Scalding can occur very quickly. Doctors from the Shriners Hospital stated “People of all ages can be burned  in 30 seconds by flowing liquid that is 130 degrees Fahrenheit. At 140 degrees Fahrenheit, it takes only five seconds and at 160 degrees Fahrenheit, it only takes one second.”

Typically, people of all ages can be scalded, but there are three age groups which are most likely to experience a scald: young children, elderly, and those with disabilities and special needs.

These three groups may not be able to communicate or comprehend that the bath water or drink is extremely hot. And mobility issues may hinder them to be able to remove themselves from the danger associated with scalding.

Typically, young children and the elderly may have thinner skin than the average adult or teen. The thinner the skin the faster the skin will be vulnerable to scalding.

Scalding can occur to everyone. To make sure you and your family are safe so it’s important to learn preventive measures.

How can I prevent scalding injuries in my home? The two typical areas that normally scalding injuries occur are the bathroom and kitchen.

Bathroom Safety:

·         Supervising young children as they use tap water to wash hands, face, etc.

·         Set your water heater to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or less. 

·         Check water temperature when filling the tub for a child, move your hand through the water. If it feels hot for your, it will be definitely hot for a child, elderly, or those with special needs.

·         Place your child on the opposite end of the tub from the faucet. Position them so their back is toward the faucet.

·         In your shower install a grab bar.

·         For a healthy adult, a safe bathing temperature is 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a cooking thermometer to check the temperature.

Kitchen Safety:

·         Face pot handles inward when cooking. This can prevent a person walking  past and accidentally knocking into the pot or so a child can’t pull it off the stove.

·         For heating items on the microwave, follow instructions and cautions – even steam from a bag of popcorn can scald you.

·         Children in the kitchen and dining areas should be supervised.

·         In the kitchen, mark a “kid-free zone” close to the stove (with tape) and clarify to your child why they cannot cross the line.

·         While preparing hot foods or liquids, never hold a child in your arms

·         Keep hot foods and liquids out of the reach of children.

For more information about scalding prevention, visit the National Fire Prevention Association website at or; or call the Joint Base San Antonio fire prevention offices at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, 210-221-2727;  JBSA-Lackland, 210-671-2921; or JBSA-Randolph at 210-652-6915.