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Beating the Burn: Preventing and Treating Contact Burns

As the days grow longer and temperatures get warmer, the joys of summer invite us to spend more time outdoors. While the term “summer burns” may evoke images of sunburns or grill burns, hot surfaces also present a real risk of getting injured.

Burns from hot surfaces, or contact burns, accounted for 10 percent of patients admitted to burn centers from 2018 to 2022, according to the American Burn Association. Contact burns were responsible for 20 percent of hospitalizations for burn-related injuries in children younger than 4.

Common Culprits

Hot surfaces can be tricky, because it may not be immediately obvious that a surface is hot enough to cause a burn.

The heat absorbed and retained by these surfaces can be intense and cause painful burns:

  • Asphalt and concrete
  • Pool decks and patio decks
  • Beach sand
  • Slides, swings, and other playground equipment
  • Metal grates near splashpads
  • Seatbelt buckles
  • Car doors
  • Coals after campfires

“A huge one that we see every summer is contact with embers or coals that are still hot after a campfire,” says Courtney Lawrence, RN, community outreach coordinator at University of Utah Health’s Burn Center. “Coals won’t go all the way out, and then the next morning kids are walking into or around the fire pit and burn themselves.”

Embers stay hot several hours after a fire is put out, so be sure to pour water over your fire site to avoid a contact burn.

Preventing a Burn

You can take steps to check how hot a surface is to minimize the risk of burns. Keep the following tips in mind this summer to keep yourself and others burn-free:

  • Always test the temperature: Before letting children or pets touch a surface, lightly place the back of your hand on it to check the temperature. If it’s too hot for you, it’s too hot for them.
  • Use protective gear: While it may be tempting to go barefoot in the summer months, always wear shoes when walking on asphalt, concrete, or even a deck. When on a playground, light, breathable clothing can reduce skin exposure.
  • The shade is your friend: Whenever possible, seek shade or use an umbrella to create your own shade to escape the heat radiating from surfaces that are directly in the sun. Take your pets for walks in shaded areas with plenty of grass to avoid burning their paws on hot sidewalks or roads.
  • Be cautious with vehicles: Car handles, leather seats, and seatbelts can absorb a lot of heat. Always test these surfaces before getting in a car or buckling a child into their seat. Never leave kids or pets unattended in a vehicle. Temperatures inside them can skyrocket in minutes and be deadly.
  • Be weather aware: Check the weather conditions in your area before going outside so you know about any heat advisories. If you can, plan outdoor activities in the cooler times of the day, such as in the morning or evening.

Treating a Contact Burn

Accidents can happen even when taking precautions, so if you or someone near you gets burned by a hot surface, follow the four C’s: cool, clean, cover, and call.  

  • Cool the burn to soothe the area and prevent further tissue damage by immersing the affected area in cool (not cold) water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Clean the burn with mild soap and water to prevent infection.
  • Cover the burn with a clean, dry cloth or sterile dressing.
  • Call for medical attention if needed. Most minor first-degree burns can be managed at home. If the burn blisters (second-degree) or appears white or charred (third-degree), seek emergency care immediately. If the burn is first-degree but on an infant or older adult, or in a sensitive area like the groin or face, consult a doctor.

Cool tip: Aloe vera is well-known for its soothing and anti-inflammatory properties, making it an excellent treatment for sunburns and mild burns.

“If the epidermis, or the top layer of the skin, is still there and just red, then using an over-the-counter remedy such as aloe vera is okay,” says Annette Matherly, RN, community outreach and burn disaster coordinator at University of Utah Health’s Burn Center. “After cooling the skin, application of a fragrance-free moisturizer can help lock in moisture and soothe the area. Petroleum-based products or home remedies such as butter, oils, or toothpaste should be avoided.” 

To avoid further irritation as your burn heals, stick to cool or lukewarm showers and use mild, fragrance-free soaps.

Lawrence and Matherly recommend calling your local burn center if you are ever unsure if a burn needs medical attention, or for advice on managing a minor burn at home.

“Treatment can be patient- and situation-dependent, so if there’s ever any doubt, you can call a burn center and speak to a medical professional about what to do.”
Annette Matherly, RN

Taking extra precautions and knowing burn first aid will help keep you and your family safe and burn-free this summer.