A boiling water burn usually causes immediate pain. If the boiling water stays on the skin or covers a large area of the body, it can cause lasting damage.
A boiling water burn is sometimes called a scald. It can also result from contact with steam.
More than 1 million people seek emergency treatment for burns each year in the United States, and about 10,000 die from burn-related infections.
The right care for a boiling water burn can ease the pain and reduce the risk of serious complications. Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for boiling water burns in this article.
Accidents involving boiling water occur frequently. Some common causes of boiling water burns include:
- spilling boiling water while pouring coffee or tea
- forgetting that a kettle or pot contains boiling water
- playing near stoves or hot water
Sometimes boiling water burns are deliberate, such as during an assault involving pouring or throwing the water. Deliberate burns are especially dangerous because they may cover more of the body than burns from accidental spills.
Boiling water typically causes more severe burns than water that is just hot.
Beyond the water’s temperature, several factors can help indicate the severity of a burn, including:
- how long the boiling water has touched the skin
- how much of the skin has been exposed to the water
- how quickly the person can cool their skin after the burn
For many people, the first symptom of a boiling water burn is sudden, sharp pain. However, third-degree burns, or full-thickness burns, damage the nerves under the skin and might not hurt at all.
A first-degree burn, or a superficial burn, is relatively minor. It only damages part of the first layer of skin, called the epidermis.
A superficial burn happens when boiled water lightly splashes on a person, such as while they are cooking, or when boiling water touches the skin very briefly.
Symptoms of a first-degree burn include:
- immediate pain that may last for several hours
- pink or red skin
- peeling as the burn heals
- dry-looking skin
A second-degree burn damages the epidermis and the top of the second layer of skin, called the dermis. Another name for this injury is a partial-thickness burn. These burns are more serious.
They may happen when boiling water remains on the skin for a longer period.
Some symptoms of a second-degree burn include:
- pain that lasts for days or weeks
- wet, watery-looking skin
- red, pink, or white skin under blisters
These burns typically take 2–3 weeks to heal. Sometimes a person needs a skin graft to treat them. Second-degree burns often leave a scar, which may fade over several years.
A third-degree burn, or full-thickness burn, is the most serious type. It penetrates all layers of the skin.
It can cause serious infections and may even be fatal if a person does not receive treatment. Immersion in boiling water for a prolonged period can cause a third-degree burn.
Some symptoms include:
- no pain, or pain that quickly goes away
- signs of illness, such as fever and weakness
- very damaged-looking skin
- white, pink, or red skin
- grey or black areas of skin
Third-degree burns may require hospitalization. A person may need skin grafting, surgery, antibiotics, or a combination.
Immediate first aid can reduce the risk of serious complications.
After sustaining a boiling water burn:
- Stop contact with the source of the burn as quickly as possible. If the hot water is on clothing, remove the clothing, unless it is stuck to the skin.
- Cool the skin by running it under cold water for at least 10 minutes.
- Do not put oils or any other products on the burn.
Seek emergency aid if the burn:
- is very painful
- covers a large area of the body
- causes no pain, but the skin looks very damaged
- is severe
In the emergency room, a doctor will assess the burn and determine whether it needs treatment. A person may need antibiotics or intravenous — IV — fluids. Skin grafts can repair the damaged area after a severe burn.
Seek medical attention for burns on the face. Also, see a doctor for a minor burn if a fever, red streaks, draining pus, or other signs of infection occur.
It is safe to treat some minor burns at home. The following home treatment tips can support healing:
- Keep the burn moisturized. Water-based lotions or aloe vera work well. Avoid other home remedies, such as toothpaste, cooking oil, or butter.
- Keep the wound clean. Gently wash the burn daily with mild soap and cool water.
- Do not pick at the burn or pop blisters. This can damage the skin and lead to infection.
- Take over-the-counter pain relievers. Some examples include ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
- Cover the burn with a sterile bandage that does not stick to the injured skin.
First-degree burns typically heal with the right home treatment.
Second-degree burns that cover large areas of the body and third-degree burns usually require professional evaluation and treatment. It can take weeks or months to recover.
Some potential complications of severe burns include:
- severe scarring
- fluid loss, when a large area of the body is involved, and this can be fatal
- infections that can eventually travel to the bloodstream and become severe and possibly fatal
If a person appears very ill after a burn or the burn covers a large area of the body, seek immediate medical care — even if the wound does not look serious or the person is not in pain.
Always see a doctor for burns in babies and children.
To reduce the risk of boiling water burns:
- Boil water and other liquids toward the back of the stove, where they are less likely to splash or spill, and where pots and pans are less likely to be knocked over.
- Set down hot drinks at the far end of a counter or table to reduce the risk of spilling.
- Turn down water heaters to reduce the risk of scalding during showers and baths.
- Teach children never to toss hot water, even as a joke.
- Assume that pots, kettles, and other kitchenware are hot after being on the stove, even if the stove is now off. Boiling water can take a long time to cool, as can the stove, even when its light is off.
- Cover boiling water to prevent splashes.
Boiling water burns are common accidents. Even minor scalds can be painful for several hours or even days.
Running burned skin under cold water as soon as possible and for at least 10 minutes is the best way to cool the skin and ease pain.
Prompt treatment reduces the risk of serious complications and, in the case of severe burns, may even save a person’s life.