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Charlie’s story – the risk of steam inhalation

Steam inhalation is considered to be helpful in easing nasal and sinus congestion when we have a cold.  The advice to use hot water and a decongestant in a bowl, and place a towel over the head to incorporate the bowl carries a high risk of scald injury from the bowl being tipped over.  Charlie shares his story of sustaining a scald injury to his lap when he was 12 whilst having a steam inhalation.

It was the first time I’d ever done a steam inhalation.  I remember that I’d had a cold for a few days and felt quite fed up with my nose being blocked up.  As I put the towel over my head the smell of the decongestant oil in the steaming hot water caught me by surprise and my head lurched back which caused the towel to catch on the bowl of water, which tipped into my lap. I remember jumping up and pulling my trousers off straight away. My mum and dad were both nearby and my dad encouraged me to go up to the shower and stand under the cold water.  We lived on the school site where my mum worked and so the school nurse came over straight away and suggested that the water might not be cold enough and that I should apply ice to the area *.

Donor area to outer side of right thigh, burn injury on inner side of right thigh (approx 3 weeks after the injury)

I vividly remember looking down and seeing the skin peeling off the top of my legs, my tummy and a patch on my right hand which was very frightening.

I stayed in the shower for about 15 minutes and then the ambulance arrived. I was taken quite quickly into the back of the ambulance where the paramedics attached some monitoring, placed some gel-like pads over my burns and gave me some gas and air to help with the pain.

I was taken to our local hospital where I remember there being lots of nurses and doctors waiting for me in the A&E department when I arrived. They were worried about the size of my burn and the amount of skin that had been burned and decided I needed to be sent to the specialist burns service in Wakefield, about an hour from where we lived.  The doctors also decided I needed a urine catheter due to the location of the burn, the swelling that was happening and the need to measure how much urine I was passing.  It was really important that they were able to ensure that I was getting enough fluid into my body due to the size of my burn.

The staff in the burns unit were amazing.  The first skin graft unfortunately failed and I needed a second skin grant to help my burn to heal which meant I ended up being in hospital for about 6 weeks.  They took skin from my right thigh to graft on to my burn areas which gave me a donor area wound also.  Eventually my burns and donor area healed well enough for me to go home and then carry on my care as an out-patient.  When my burns wounds were fully healed I had to wear special shorts (pressure garment) for two years whilst my scars matured.

Scar to inner aspect of right thigh.

Six years on and my burns have healed well. I have a scar on my right thigh where they did the skin graft and a faint scar where they took the skin graft from. I feel very lucky that my family and friends were so supportive and helped during my recovery. 

I decided to offer my support to Children’s Burns Trust to help fundraise to support other children and families who might be struggling after their burn injury and also to help raise awareness about the risk of burn injury, particularly from steam inhalations and other hot water spills.

*The use of ice is not recommended in the first aid management of a burn as it shuts down the blood supply to the injured area and could cause additional tissue damage.


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