What is a Steam Burn?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Inhaling steam can cause serious damage to the bronchial tubes.
Inhaling steam can cause serious damage to the bronchial tubes.

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.

A steam burn may require medical attention.
A steam burn may require medical attention.

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 skin may appear red after a steam burn.
The skin may appear red after a steam burn.

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 severity of a steam burn can range from mild to highly dangerous.
The severity of a steam burn can range from mild to highly dangerous.

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.

Blisters may occur as a result of a steam burn.
Blisters may occur as a result of a steam burn.

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

anon996093

Why does it say not to cool it with water? Literally the first thing that the Red Cross's first aid information says to do for a burn is to "cool the burn under cool running water for at least ten minutes". It also says not to use ice.

anon327602

Steam produces more severe burns than boiling water because the latent heat of steam is 320 degrees, which is higher than boiling water.

anon324996

I got a steam burn from a pressure cooker. I went to the hospital and I feel fine now. The problem is I still feel pain in the scars left on my breasts and my arm. What do I do? Please help me.

anon281665

The real reason steam burns are so dangerous is that the real burn comes from energy transferred from the change of state of the liquid.

The same principle is the basis for sweating. Water evaporating off our skin cools us because the change of phase takes energy from the environment and cools our skin. When steam hits our body, the steam condensing into liquid water releases energy, and this energy is larger than the temperature difference between the steam and your hand.

anon217479

I was burned by a 400 degree oven at work. my chest hurts. i did inhale. my face hurts, but there were no signs of anything bad on my face, so i didn't fill out an incident report. now I'm scared I'll get choked out because i won't be able to pay. should i not worry?

anon57641

this article did not tell me what I should do with my blisters. I wish it did.

anon16410

my hand has been burnt with hot steam and become white. is it possible to develop vitiligo? has the pigment been destroyed? what can i do? help me.

lamaestra

One of the most dangerous times for steam burns is when you're pouring out pasta, in its boiling water, into a colander. The steam just rises up and can burn your hands, wrists, and face. Its really important to be very careful around boiling water and things like pasta. Also, when things come out of the microwave and you take the film or the plastic wrap off of the food, that can also cause a steam burn. It can be just as serious as any other kind of burn, so make sure steam burns are treated right away.

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    • Inhaling steam can cause serious damage to the bronchial tubes.
      Inhaling steam can cause serious damage to the bronchial tubes.
    • A steam burn may require medical attention.
      A steam burn may require medical attention.
    • The skin may appear red after a steam burn.
      The skin may appear red after a steam burn.
    • The severity of a steam burn can range from mild to highly dangerous.
      The severity of a steam burn can range from mild to highly dangerous.
    • Blisters may occur as a result of a steam burn.
      Blisters may occur as a result of a steam burn.
    • Cooling a steam burn with water may send a patient with a severe burn into shock.
      Cooling a steam burn with water may send a patient with a severe burn into shock.
    • A steam burn should not be cooled with water.
      A steam burn should not be cooled with water.
    • Antibiotic cream may be applied to burn blisters to help prevent infection.
      Antibiotic cream may be applied to burn blisters to help prevent infection.
    • If a patient has trouble breathing after a steam burn, emergency services should be called to administer rescue breathing.
      If a patient has trouble breathing after a steam burn, emergency services should be called to administer rescue breathing.