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Heating Pads Can Cause Second-Degree Burns

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Heating Pads Can Cause Second-Degree Burns

Nov 23, 2018

Heating pads are big burn-risks to the elderly and geriatric populations. Brad Wiggins, nurse manager at University of Utah Health Burn Center, talks about why these two populations, specifically, are most susceptible to second-degree burns, the types of injuries he has seen from heating pads, and their treatments.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Health information from expects, supported by research. From University of Utah Health, this is

Interviewer: Do you have a body ache or pain? What do you do? A lot of people go and grab the heating pad, even if they're cold they just go grab a heating pad, but there's actually a burn danger, which surprises me. We're talking with Brad Wiggens, nurse manager of community outreach at the University of Utah Health Care Burn Center. I can't believe that a heating pad could actually burn you. Really?

Brad Wiggens: Absolutely, heating pads actually pose a big risk to the elderly population, the geriatric population. They can burn anybody, never should be used with a small infant, but again, our number one population that we see the most that is an elderly, geriatric type of patient.

Interviewer: How hot do they get?

Brad Wiggens: Well actually a heating pad will only get to about 120 degrees, at the most, when it's kind of in a confined space, but I think the danger of that is that people don't realize that leaving it in the same place, falling asleep on it, putting it on a patient who may be, or a loved one that has some neuropathies, maybe as you get older you don't feel as much in certain areas of your body, they leave it in the same place, they get left alone, maybe they don't have as much movement or ability to get away from it when it does get hot, and people don't realize it'll actually cause a second degree burn over just a few hours of time of exposure.

So they really should be used for short durations of time and really pose a lot of risk to breaking the skin and having a significant burn injury, and even nationally, this is a surprising stat that most people don't realize, is that there is a risk of actual death. So there are reported deaths nationally from heating pad burn injuries.

Interviewer: So it's not the intensity of heat, it's the heat plus the time, it sounds like. So what's the difference between like if I put a heating pad on my back and fall asleep versus an elderly person, is their skin like thinner or something or?

Brad Wiggens: Sure, so there skin is a little bit thinner or more frail, but they don't have nearly the best circulation that you and I have at a younger age. So definitely there're at a higher risk because their skin doesn't heal as well. So you're heating up an area, damaging it, you're causing inflammation and then you're trying to heal that injury, so it is a little bit more complicated because of their age, you're just, your skin is more frail and you don't have good circulation.

Interviewer: So is a burn from a heating pad a third degree, is a third degree burn a third degree burn, whether it's from a flame or a heating pad?

Brad Wiggens: Sure, yeah, I mean a third degree burn is a third degree burn. So a first degree burn would be a sunburn, a second degree burn would be when you get significant blistering from touching something hot, not blisters that you get from a sunburn, and a third degree burn would be burning all the way through all the layers of your skin, down past your dermal layers and down into subcutaneous tissues.

So a third degree burn is a third degree burn no matter which way you got it. Whether it was from the glass front fireplace, whether it was from a heating pad, it's pretty difficult to get to that point with a heating pad because of the heat they do put out, however, because it's on an elderly person we see of danger with that, where you actually have such significant amount of damage, you have a deeper injury, they don't have the good circulation that they need to heal that injury, so it actually ends up being a deeper second to a third degree burn and lends itself to needing to have a skin graft, which lends itself to a hospital stay within our intensive care unit, and really longer outcomes.

Interviewer: So it's the kind of complications more than the burn itself, for an elderly person, like breaking their hip for example?

Brad Wiggens: Yes, it's the complications, it's the same type of thing. You're taking someone who has a lot of problems and a lot of comorbidities typically, a lot of elders, as we all get older you have more ailments, I mean things get harder to do. It's harder to recover from the flu, it's harder to recover from falling and breaking your hip, those are the dangers and it's exactly the same type of situation when you're using a heating pad.

Now, a lot of people chose to use those with infants as well. The danger risk of all those types of things, heating pads should never be used with infants, they shouldn't be used with people who are paralyzed, either I think that that's a big focus. So you have someone that's paralyzed and has no feeling and maybe they're going to put it on something to make themselves try to feel better in that area, for some reason, or they'll have a loved one that does it, and they won't even know they got burned because they can't feel it, so those risks really are there.

Another huge risk is that people actually fold them and wrap them, and it's a heating element that sits inside a piece of fabric and when it gets a little bit used, it starts to get a little bit more rigid, so you fold it up, you wrap it, you stuff it in your, you know, in your towel closet and you know, you pull it out when you need it, but there's some electrical safety risks there too. I think at the end of the day really think about what you're doing. You're placing something hot against the biggest organ of your body, your skin. And you're putting your skin at risk. Really focus on that safety, that personal safety piece of what am I doing and why am I doing it and for how long should I do it.

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updated: November 23, 2018
originally published: March 3, 2014