Dear Readers: If you have been reading this column for a while, you may recognize this topic from previous years. I am writing about it again because it saddens me each year when I see a child who has suffered burns from a fireplace. The injuries are often severe and can result in permanent scars.
Parents or caregivers often do not understand the dangers a gas fireplace poses to a child. I have even heard reports of dogs burning their nose on fireplace glass, so the risk isn’t only to children.
Fireplaces provide heat in the cold winter months and provide a nice ambiance. Most parents understand the dangers of a wood-burning or open fireplace and, fortunately, I don’t often see injuries from these. What parents overlook are the dangers of gas-burning fireplaces with a glass front.
Sometimes there is a sense of security, because children can’t get to the flame. However, burn injuries from touching the glass are the main cause of injury.
The glass on the front of a gas-burning fireplace can reach temperatures above 400 degrees in 6 minutes, and it takes 45 minutes for the glass to cool completely after the fireplace is turned off. Touching the heated glass can be enough to cause second- and third-degree burns.
Third-degree burns can require skin grafting. Both types of burns of the hand can cause scarring that may limit hand movement and require therapy.
Young children who are just becoming mobile are especially at risk. They lack good coordination and can fall on the glass or touch it when reaching out to brace themselves. They also don’t have the dexterity to quickly pull their body or hands away from the heat, so they can endure deeper and more extensive burns.
Also, the flame of the fireplace is interesting to young children, so it draws their attention. And, of course, they want to touch it.
Even with children 2 or 3 years old, injuries can occur. Because the fireplace is not a cause of injury at other times of the year, its dangers are easily forgotten.
My best recommendation is to leave the fireplace off when your young child is awake. Until my son was 3½ years old, I never turned on the fireplace in our home while he was awake.
At 3½, I still wouldn’t let him walk within a couple feet of the fireplace, and I kept reminding him that it was hot and would hurt.
The timing of when a parent can feel safe having the fireplace on depends on their child’s understanding of and willingness to avoid the dangers.
Another safety option is a barrier. This barrier needs to be rigid and not movable by a young child. It also cannot be made of material that will become hot itself when in close proximity to a fireplace. Screens are now being made with this in mind.
If your child ever suffers a burn, immediately run cool water over the wound until it is cool or pain has improved. You also can place the burned area in a bowl of cool water.
Do not use ice or rub the burn. Do not coat in butter or other substances, as this can cause further injury. If needed, the burn area should then be covered with sterile gauze.
If pain or redness does not resolve after a couple of hours, or the burn is extensive or oozing, you should immediately call your child’s doctor or take your child to the emergency room for treatment.
Care also needs to be sought for burns to the hands, face, genitals or over a moving joint, as management is important to prevent long-term disability from scarring.
This column provides general health information and is not specific advice intended for any particular individual(s). It is not a professional medical opinion or a diagnosis. Always consult your personal health care provider about your concerns. No ongoing relationship of any sort (including but not limited to any form of professional relationship) is implied or offered by Dr. Johnson to people submitting questions.