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In Hot Water

By Jennifer Bradley, Staff Writer

(Page 1 of 3)

A hot shower is a must for many people to either start or finish the day. For the elderly, it can be the same, but also a risky undertaking. In all age groups, tap water scalds are the second most common cause of burn injuries. Elderly loved ones, however, are at a greater risk for scalding than other populations for a variety of reasons.

The Burn Foundation says that hot water causes third-degree burns in one second at 156 degrees F, in two seconds at 149 degrees F, in five seconds at 140 degrees F, and in 15 seconds at 133 degrees F. Scalding is a second-degree burn that is deep and results in splitting of skin layers and/or blistering.

 The solution would seem to be to simply decrease the water temperature; the Occupational Safety and Health Administrationís (OSHA) manual on Legionnaireís disease (a potentially fatal infectious disease) says differently, however. Water is to be stored at a minimum of 140 degrees F, but can be delivered at a minimum of 122 degrees F to ensure harmful bacteria are killed.

A caregiver must first recognize the level of risk their loved one has for scalding, and also know ways to prevent unnecessary burns, while maintaining a safe water temperature.


The number one risk an elderly person has for scalding is simply a decreased reaction time. Many seniors will unknowingly subject themselves to the danger of severe burns and realize it too late. There are a couple things to know about skin changes as people age. First, elderly people have thinner skin, which burns at a lower temperature than those who are younger. It also burns faster. In addition, an elderly loved one is 50 percent less likely to survive a severe burn.

The mental capacity of a loved one will also affect their ability to prevent scalding while alone. Whether Parkinsonís, dementia or another illness that affects mental reasoning, a caregiver must realize that a person may not have the ability they previously had to determine a safe water temperature. The risk is further heightened by mobility issues, increased falls and trips that may unintentionally cause a slip on a bathroom fixture.

The same precedent goes for a loved one who has just had surgery, and may think a wound is healed enough for a warmer water immersion, when it actually is not.

Caregivers are on not off the hook, either. If an inexperienced caregiver leaves a love one unattended, runs water at too high a temperature, or allows a person to change the water temp without assistance, the chances for scalding increase greatly. What may feel warm to a caregiver could be a very hot experience for a loved one.

As with many tasks involving an elderly loved one, not rushing through bathing is important. Scalding is more likely to occur when a caregiver is in a hurry, stressed or distracted.


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