What is a Steam Burn?

A steam burn is a burn caused by steam, usually from boiling water. Minor ones can happen in any kitchen, but this type of burn can also be very severe. Although the skin will not be charred, as would be the case with a flame burn, blisters and redness will appear. A third degree steam burn will penetrate deep into the flesh, and may be white, heavily blistered, and numb. The larger concern with burns caused by steam is the airway, however. Inhaling steam can cause serious damage to the bronchial tubes, and could potentially lead to death.
The steam rising from boiling water exceeds 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). Pure steam is actually an invisible vapor, but the small drops of condensed water which hover over hot pans can still cause a severe burn, even if they are not technically steam. True steam can be especially dangerous because it is invisible, so someone will not be aware that they are in danger of a steam burn until it has already happened.
The severity of a steam burn can range from mild to highly dangerous. If someone in your presence is burned with steam, it is important to calm them down and assess the severity of the burn before taking the next step. Keep calm and talk to the patient in a neutral voice, no matter how bad the burn is. A superficial steam burn can be treated by keeping it clean and treating it with a cooling lotion periodically, much like you would treat a sunburn. However, a more serious burn requires special attention.
The ABCs of first aid can guide you in deciding how serious a steam burn is. Check the patient’s Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. If the airway of the patient appears compromised and he or she is having trouble breathing, call emergency services and prepare to administer rescue breathing. If the patient’s airway is clear, keep an eye on his or her vital signs and investigate the area of the burn. If the burn is larger than your palm or it looks extremely severe, call for help. Your help on the scene may save someone, or reduce the serious disfigurement and scarring which a steam burn can cause. Make sure to follow the directions of emergency services personnel on the phone and once they arrive.
Although it is tempting to do so, do not try to cool a steam burn with water or ointments. This can send a patient with a severe burn into shock. Also avoid pulling away the clothing around the area, as the clothing may be stuck to the skin and you could cause severe pain. Cover the burn with a dry sterile nonstick bandage until emergency services arrive, and if possible, elevate it above the heart. If joints such as fingers and toes are burned, separate them with nonstick bandages.