Older adults are at greater risk of burn injuries because of physical changes that occur naturally as we grow older.
- The ability to see and hear diminishes with age. An older adult may not see that a stove burner is on or may not hear a smoke alarm.
- Skin gets thinner with aging. Older adults may burn more quickly on contact with hot material and suffer a deeper burn than a younger person.
- Chronic health problems impair the senses. Certain conditions — for example, diabetes — can decrease the sense of touch, so an older adult may be burned without realizing it.
- Reflexes slow; agility and balance are reduced. Older adults may suffer from mobility problems— ranging from arthritis to reliance on a wheelchair to being bedridden—that make it difficult or impossible to escape a fire.
- Cognitive problems may reduce the ability to recognize danger. Older adults may have conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease that make it difficult for them to recognize danger and avoid risky actions.
Older adults can reduce the risk of burn injuries by doing the following:
Planning. Make sure smoke alarms are properly installed and that batteries are charged; ask family members or neighbors to help, if needed. Plot an escape route and practice an emergency exit. Identify someone nearby who can help in an emergency. Make sure emergency phone numbers are posted by the telephone.
Common sense. If you take medication that makes you drowsy, don’t try to cook until you’re alert. Wear snug-fitting or short sleeves when you cook. Use oven mitts, and turn off burners before picking up a pot. Avoid using extension cords on a regular basis, and make sure electrical outlets are appropriate for the appliances you plug in. If you like candles, use large, sturdy candleholders; don’t leave burning candles unattended. Consider using battery-operated candle look-alikes. Always test your bath or shower water with an elbow or hand, and turn the temperature on your hot water heater to no more than 120 degrees F.
Appliance safety. Don’t use appliances with worn or frayed electrical cords. If you use space heaters, make sure you use the right fuel and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use, especially for clearance from walls, drapes and furniture. Use a timer with electric blankets and heating pads.
Smoking. Cigarettes and other smoking materials are the number- one cause of fatal home fires for older adults. If you or others in your home must smoke, make sure you have large, deep, non-tip ashtrays. Wet down butts and ashes before you empty ashtrays, and empty ashtrays into a metal trash can. Never smoke in bed, and never smoke near an oxygen source. Don’t smoke after drinking or taking medications that make you drowsy.
Keep it clean. Clear out clutter: piles of papers, clothing and other materials pose a fire hazard and can block exit routes. Keep your stovetop and oven clean to reduce the chance of grease fires. Check your basement or storage area, and dispose of any flammable gases and liquids (cleaning fluids, gasoline, propane, kerosene, paint thinner) that you don’t need.
Ask. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you have safety concerns, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
To learn more, visit the American Burn Association Web site at www.ameriburn.org.