Carer Story: Dealing with burn injuries

It pays to be prepared for emergencies: most injuries happen at home in an instant, says Virginia Linton, who was ill prepared when her partner was seriously burned.

It began as mornings do: pouring boiling water from the jug into the coffee plunger so we could enjoy that first cup of the morning feeling before going our separate ways for the day. But this day was different, because we hadn’t noticed a long hairline crack in the glass plunger insert.

In an instant, the whole thing shattered in a tempest of coffee grounds, glass shards, and scalding liquid.

Most of this landed on my partner’s bare thighs, narrowly missing his groin and our daughter, who was standing next to him. Which was a good thing, because in that instant he was badly burned, a nasty injury that took weeks to heal and could have been much worse.

It was a routine household moment that went bad, as things do every day in homes across New Zealand. But like so many we weren’t prepared; my thoughts raced … when someone is burned, what does one do? My partner knew he should immediately cool the burn, so he hopped into a cold shower for several minutes … but then what?

The skin began to blister and fill with liquid. Before long the blisters had ballooned, covering large portions of his upper legs. And there was pain. Bad pain, an effect of burns that can (as we learned) linger for weeks or months.

Luckily it was a weekday. The chemist was matter of fact, suggesting an expensive bottle of castor oil as a natural healing option for burns. We emerged from the shop with a parcel of ‘second skin’ bandages and the castor oil, and instructions to keep the blisters covered and to slather them with the oil every few days while the burns healed.

The problem was, the bandages were no match for the leakage from my partner’s blisters, and the castor oil leaked too, staining bedding and clothing an ugly yellow green. The burns didn’t seem to be healing very well, nor was paracetamol masking my partner’s pain as the blisters burst, leaving large patches of raw weeping skin.

A visit to the GP’s practice nurse overrode all of the advice we’d been given by the chemist. She dismissed the castor oil (the nearly full $40 bottle now sits in the cupboard and will no doubt be turfed), dispensed stronger pain medication, and thoroughly cleaned the open wounds before covering them with bandages better suited to infection-prone burn injuries.

My partner was lucky. Had the hot coffee and grounds splattered across his groin, the pain would have been much worse (needless to say), and he likely would have required hospitalisation. As it was, the open wounds took weeks to close over and, several months later, the burned area still looks red. Fortunately, it looks as though my partner has escaped bad scarring from his burns.

The incident has made us conscious of the possibilities for burning around our home. We threw away the glass coffee plunger and replaced it with a stainless steel one. And now, when pouring hot water into the plunger, we point the spout away from our bodies … just in case.

We’re also more conscious of our lack of first aid knowledge about what to do when injuries of any kind happen at home. Learning what to do in first aid emergencies is like preparing a will; it’s something we all think about but may never get round to doing.

We at least have a well-equipped first aid kit and this was just as well, for we have needed many of its contents in recent months for the burns incident and wounds caused by several slipped knives. But have we replaced the used items, as you should once or twice a year? Um, no.

Accidents at home happen every day so it pays to ensure that first aid items are on hand, that the first aid kit contains all recommended items, and that we know how to deal with the most common household injuries.

First aid courses are available in most communities through St John or other organisations, and you can buy well equipped first aid kits at the chemist or online (along with replacement supplies). And if you have access to the Internet, you can watch free first aid training at St John’s website.

In less than an hour I was able to view short videos and ‘watch and learn’ how to deal with the most common home first aid emergencies, including burns. If you aren’t able to view the online tutorials, there are many print books available from libraries to brush up your first aid knowledge, or you can buy them from booksellers.

Obviously it’s best to learn how to respond to common first aid emergencies before you might ever be called upon to use those skills. Our emergency happened in a flash and the aftermath left us disturbed, not just by the injury and how quickly it occurred, but how poorly equipped we were to deal with it before accessing professional help.

I’ll be refilling our now depleted first aid kit and spending more time at the St John website, which also features free tutorials to help family caregivers deal with a life threatening emergency at home.

Learn about burns!

A burn can be very painful and distressing, especially for elderly people whose skin may be thinner. Burns can result from contact with a heat source such as chemicals, hot metal, electricity, hot liquid, or steam. And clothing over the area may retain the heat, prolonging pain and causing further injury.

Visit St John’s website for detailed information  about how to help someone who has suffered a burn. You can also order a St John first aid kit at the website, and skim through all of the first aid tutorials in its online library. These tutorials cover many topics and will give you the basic knowledge to deal with common household first aid emergencies.

You can also learn about available St John first aid courses in your area!

Burn symptoms!

Severe pain; red, peeling or blistered skin (or blackened if caused by electricity); watery fluid weeping from the injured area; the patient may be pale, cold and sweaty, feeling faint and dizzy, and complaining of nausea or vomiting; swelling of the injured area may appear later.

Ways to help, from St John
  1. Remove the heat source from the patient, or the patient from the heat source, whichever is easiest and safest. Cool the affected area for up to 20 minutes using cool running water from a tap or shower. In the absence of water any cool clean fluid (beer, soft drink, etc) can be used. A first aid burn gel may be used in place of water, provided there is enough to cover the burn.
  2. If any clothing is wet with hot liquid or affected by a chemical splash, remove it quickly and carefully. Remove any tight clothing, watches, rings or jewellery from the injured area, if possible, because of the risk of swelling.
  3. If the patient is badly injured, or the burn is causing significant pain, or involves the eyes, or is larger than half the patient’s arm, call 111 for an ambulance. See a doctor if the burn is causing ongoing significant pain, or involves the face, hands, joints or genitals.
  4. If the patient is feeling faint, lay them down. The injured part (depending on the location of the burn) can be placed in a bowl or bucket of cold water if this is easier than pouring water over the burn.
  5. After cooling the injured area for up to 20 minutes, apply a sterile dressing.
  6. Use a non-adhering dressing or a piece of clean plastic kitchen wrap to cover the burn.

For more first aid advice visit

© Family Care NZ

Photo:, Kanate