The common cold and flu remedy causing kid’s burns to spike

A common household cold and flu remedy is responsible for a spate of children’s burns injuries, with doctors at Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network warning steam inhalation is not worth the risk.

Already this year, 30 children have been hospitalised across The Children’s Hospital at Westmead and Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick for burns injuries following accidents with steam inhalers, with one third of these patients requiring a skin graft.

Eight-year-old Charlie is one of the many to be burnt by the age-old remedy this winter. 

Charlie had been suffering from the flu and a chest infection when a local GP suggested steam inhalation. Charlie's family had put some Vicks in a bowl of hot water, and placed a towel over Charlie's head to try and help clear his congestion, but when it became too dark, Charlie pulled back and accidentally spilled the boiling water all down the front of him.

Charlie sustained burns to 18 per cent of his body, six per cent of which required skin grafting, and spent three weeks in The Children's Hospital at Westmead recovering. 

Hospital admissions, like Charlies, are already more than three times higher this year than the same period last year. Paediatric Burns Surgeon, Dr Rachel D’Cruz, says the increase is a significant concern.

“While steam inhalation and the use of inhalants are often suggested to help clear nasal and respiratory congestion, they pose a serious burns risk for children and should not be used as a form of treatment,” Dr D’Cruz said.

“We know there are more children getting sick with viral illness this winter, but there is no proven benefit to using steam inhalation and the damage it can cause is just not worth the risk.”

Charlie's mum, Mary, agreed and hopes sharing her story will help prevent another child ending up in the same situation as Charlie.

“As a mum I just want to highlight the dangers of this old home remedy," Mary said.

“I want to let other parents know not to use this kind of treatment on your children. It's not safe and I really want to get the message out there to stop it.”

The most common injuries were caused by children placing their heads over boiling hot bowls of water to inhale steam, resulting in burns to the groin or genital area, and by vaporisers left with reach of children, resulting in burns to their fingers.

On average, half of all steam inhalation burns require hospital admission and are often more severe than those caused by other scalds.

“I really urge parents to use alternative options to relieve their children’s symptoms. The congestion will get better without using these heat sources,” Dr D’Cruz said

“Children’s skin burns quicker, deeper and at lower temperatures than adults, meaning an accident like this can cause long-lasting injuries and life-long scarring.” 

“The best advice is to always keep hot items, steam inhalers and vaporisers out of reach of children and to know the correct first aid should an accident occur.”

Charlie does still need to visit hospital for regular dressing changes and is recovering well but said: “Don’t try this at home.”

If your child is burnt, immediate first aid is vital to reduce the severity of the injury:

  • Place the burn under cool running water for 20 minutes. This will cool the burn and reduce swelling and is the only proven effective treatment. 
  • Remove any clothing or jewellery where possible
  • Seek medical help if you have any concerns and dial 000 in the event of emergency.

For more information on burns prevention and first aid, visit the Kids Health website.