May 2001
Ask the Nurse: Treating Scald Burns

Lori Mayar, R.N. My grandmother always said to slather scald burns with butter, but I've heard that's the wrong thing to do. How should scalds be treated?

Lori Mayar, RN, Clinical Services Manager of the Andrew J. and Henrietta Panettieri Burn Center at Bridgeport Hospital, responds:

That's a good question, because the most common cause of burns is not matches, not stoves—it's not even fire. It's hot liquids. Serious burns can happen in as little as one second after contact with hot liquids. And you're right—you should not put butter, salve, or grease on a scald or any type of burn. Here's the correct treatment for scalds:

If you are scalded:

  • Quickly remove hot wet clothing to eliminate the source of the burning.
  • Place the burned area in cool water immediately to stop the burn process and reduce pain.
  • Do NOT apply ice; that could damage tissues.
  • Do NOT break blisters; that can lead to infection.
  • Do NOT apply butter or ointments; these can encourage infection.
  • DO cover the burn with gauze or a Band-Aid.

If the wound covers an area greater than the palm of your hand, or is on the face or genitals, or covers a joint, go to the nearest Emergency Department.

To keep yourself or your loved ones from being scalded, here are some important guidelines.

  • Keep your hot water heater set no higher than 120 degrees. Test with a thermometer if necessary.
  • Make sure your electric coffee pot and similar appliances have short cords, and keep cords away from counter or table edges, so children can't pull on them and spill hot liquids.
  • Never leave children unattended in the tub; they might turn on the hot water.
  • Always check to see that children and obstacles are not in your path before carrying hot liquids.
  • Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove.

A little caution can help prevent the pain of scald burns.