07/30/2012 05:00 EDT | Updated 09/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Day-to-day household tasks increase risk of serious burn injuries

TORONTO - Tatiana Dimion was distracted and in a rush to fry meat on her stove. Perched on a stool, she reached up for some paper towels from a top cabinet and tumbled to the floor, taking down the hot pot of oil from the stove with her.

"Just like that, I came down," Dimion, 40, of Toronto says of the accident, which occurred six months ago. "I'm turning (over) because oil slipped on me and on the floor."

Dimion was taken to the hospital, where she spent two weeks being treated for second- and third-degree burns on her upper left arm and forearm. She needed skin grafts to repair the injury.

Burns in the kitchen happen more often than many people realize, says Leigh Anne Dunlop, a Toronto Emergency Medical Services paramedic.

"On average, it's almost a burn a day," she said. "That's just in Toronto."

The severity of a burn often depends on the type of activity and the materials a person is using, says Dr. Marc Jeschke, director of the Ross Tilley Burn Centre at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.

"A scald burn is something you get when you're dealing with heat — hot water, cooking or soup," he said.

When a hot liquid or sizzling oil splashes out of a pot or pan and splatters part of the body, it can burn the skin, say Jeschke, explaining that these minor accidents usually result in what's termed a first-degree burn.

"A first degree-burn is (like) a sunburn," says Jeschke. "It's just on the outside of the skin."

A burn is upgraded to second-degree when the flesh is seared or exposed to hot liquids that cause pain and blistering of the skin, says Dunlop. Third-degree burns, although less painful because they involve nerve damage, are the most severe type and can leave the skin looking black or charred.

Not all accidents in the kitchen require medical attention, says Jeschke.

"If you have a burn that is on the fingertip, you don't need to see a doctor unless (pain) persists. Superficial burns shouldn't hurt more than a day or two, normally."

Where the burn occurs determines whether treatment should be sought and how quickly, adds Dunlop. If the entire hand or part of the face or eyes are scorched, she recommends calling 911.

One way to decide whether a burn requires swift medical treatment is to measure the percentage of skin affected, using the size of one's hand as a gauge.

"That's about nine per cent of your body," Dunlop says of adults. "Greater than 10 to 15 per cent, call an ambulance."

For children, if a burn is one and a half times the size of the youngster's hand, the parent or caregiver should immediately call 911, she adds.

As a first step, Jeschke recommends applying cool water to the burn until the pain subsides. But he warns the water shouldn't be freezing cold.

"Putting ice on a burn for too long can cause frostbite," he said, noting that trying to deep-freeze the area can cause more harm than good.

After bathing the burn in cool water, Dunlop says the wound should be covered with a clean, dry cloth or gauze.

But so-called home remedies should be avoided, advises Jeschke.

"Do not use honey, ketchup, onion or vinegar," he said, adding that butter is also a definite no-no. "Do not use them because they can cause worse injuries."

Of course, the best way to avoid burns from happening is to practise caution.

For Dimion, that means slowing down while cooking in the kitchen. She's learned to take her time.

"I'm really a person of action. I do three things at a time," she said, adding that she no longer rushes to juggle multiple tasks at the same time as preparing meals.

Dimion has also taken advice from Pauline Palmer, the physiotherapist who treated her at Toronto's St. John's Rehab Hospital. Palmer recommends never leaving pots on the stove unattended, cooking on the back burners and turning pot handles in so there is no opportunity to bump into them.

She also recommends wearing closer-fitting clothes while cooking or barbecuing, since loose garments pose a risk of catching fire.

As for those summer barbecues, Jeschke says people should use their common sense — "Do not use gasoline on an open flame" — and exercise extra caution if downing a cold one while flipping burgers or grilling steaks.

"There are accidents that always happen. For a majority of burn patients, it's an injury that can be avoided."