How to Avoid Cooking Burns This Thanksgiving

How to Avoid Cooking Burns This Thanksgiving.

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Did you know that, when it comes to fires and burn injuries, cold-weather holidays—especially Thanksgiving—tend to be the most dangerous of all?

Kitchen accidents cause at least half of all fires in the home, with over 2,000 occurring on Thanksgiving itself. This is higher than any other day of the year, exceeding even fireworks-related events on Independence Day. 

Here are some tips that may help you prevent a kitchen burn, especially around the holidays:

Take Care with the Turkey Fryer

Kitchen burns are often not severe, but it can be an entirely different story when it comes to deep-frying the holiday turkey.

Few kitchen burns are severe, but frying the turkey can cause serious, life-threatening injuries. Stay safe with tips from Dr. Shawn Tejiram. @MedStarWHC via
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Incorrect use of a turkey fryer can set your entire house on fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, deep-frying fires cause an average of five deaths, 60 injuries and more than $15 million in property damage each year.

A fried turkey gone wrong can cause severe injury requiring intensive care and surgery. As a burn surgeon, I recommend no deep frying at all; oil can stick to your skin and burn longer than water-based liquids. It’s safer to roast or use newer, oil-less frying technology.

But, if you plan to fry in oil:

  • Do your homework on the proper procedure, or recruit help from someone more experienced.
  • Many frying accidents start with an over-filled fryer pot. When food goes in, oil spills out, right onto the ignition source. If the food item is the size of a turkey, it can easily cause a large, intense fireball. Be sure your fryer pot is large enough for both the oil and the bird. The day before you cook, stage a dress rehearsal with the turkey and cold water. Size the bird for the fryer. Check the specs of your fryer, but a safe guideline is to choose a bird 12 pounds or smaller.
  • Be sure your turkey is fully thawed and dry before frying. Water or ice can hide in the cavity or under the skin and then boil instantly in hot oil. The steam created can propel oil toward both the cook and the flame. For this same reason, don’t fry in rain or snow.
  • Place your fryer on a non-flammable surface. Think concrete, not wood decking.
  • Set up your fryer as far from any structure as possible, clear of any roof, overhang or doorway. Place the burner on a solid and level footing, to prevent tip-over.
  • Keep at least two feet of space between the propane tank and the fryer. Position the feed line so it’s not a tripping hazard.
  • Use a thermometer to monitor oil temperature, especially before the turkey goes in. Oil is most dangerous at its “smoke point,” hot enough to ignite. Oil at 325°F/163°C is plenty hot for frying; it should never exceed 350°F/177°C If the oil begins smoking, shut off the heat to let it cool before proceeding.
  • Shut off the flame when dropping the turkey into the fryer. If the oil spills, you’ll have removed one major potential fire source. Wait for the oil to settle down before relighting the burner.
  • Keep kids and pets far away from the fryer during heating, cooking and cooling. And after cooking as well: several gallons of oil can take many hours to cool enough for safe disposal.
  • The cook is responsible for wearing protective equipment: barbecue-rated mitts, goggles, long sleeves, long pants and sturdy shoes.

Indoors Too, Safety Counts

Indoors as well, cooks can be at risk for several potential hazards. Follow these common-sense guidelines to help keep your kitchen safe at the holidays and all year round:

Know Your Limits: An online video can make complex recipes look easy. But the cook’s prior experience might not extend beyond heating ramen noodles. A recipe demanding advanced skills may tip the balance toward an accident. Be sure you’re up to the challenge. If in doubt, try something less complicated.

Avoid a Scalding: Scalds are among the most common burns. Soups, stews, pasta water and hot sauces are easily sloshed, splashed and spilled—placing both cook and diner at risk. Be sure the pot is big enough for the load and don’t overfill it. Wear long sleeves and use oven mitts when handling hot liquids.

Read the Instructions: If you’re using a piece of equipment for the first time or haven’t used it recently, review the manual or other instructions. Guessing can put you at risk. If you’ve lost the instructions, look online.

Protect Yourself: When things go wrong, a cook will often instinctively grab a burning pot or pan to get it away from the heat, forgetting to use an oven mitt. Keep the mitts nearby and get into the habit of putting them on every time you grab a pan. You’ll be more likely to put them on in an emergency, too.

Don’t cook barefoot or in sandals or slippers. Sturdy shoes, long sleeves and long trousers will protect you better. Avoid frilly or lacy garments that might easily catch fire. Tie back long hair.

Keep an Eye on the Kids: Sometimes kids can get rowdy around the holidays. Set clear rules around the stove and oven. Turn pot handles inward, so little hands can’t reach them. And never leave hot food unattended. The best way to keep the kids safe is with responsible supervision.

Be Careful about Cooking while Drinking: I am confident in saying that alcohol use while cooking can make things worse, slowing your response in an emergency. Go easy during meal prep.

Have a Good Extinguisher: Every kitchen should have a grease-rated fire extinguisher, with the letter B in its rating. Keep it within reach, every time you cook. An extinguisher will knock down a small fire, preventing it from spreading and doing more damage. Read the extinguisher manual, too, so you’re prepared to use it if needed. Never throw water on a cooking fire; it can spread burning oil and grease.

When to Call for Help: A small fire can be out of control in the blink of an eye. If fire threatens your home or your loved ones, get out and call for help. You may lose a few possessions, but it could save your life.

If You Get Burned

Burns are rated by degree or depth of injury.

  • First degree burns affect only the uppermost layer of skin. Sunburn is a good example, sometimes painful but improving in a day or so.
  • Second degree burns (partial thickness) cause blistering and typically call for medical attention. They may take as long as three weeks to heal.
  • Third degree burns affect the entire thickness of skin. Because they often damage nerve endings, there is often no pain, at least initially. This burn has a dry, leathery appearance and is considered a medical emergency.
  • Fourth degree burns go even deeper, to soft tissue, muscle and bone, and are medical emergencies.

When you get burned, you may have been told to apply ice or cold water to stop the heat. This is no longer recommended: cold constricts blood vessels, and healing is dependent on blood flow. Keep room-temperature water flowing over the burn for 5–10 minutes. Clean with soap, especially if the burn came from hot grease or oil. Apply first aid burn cream or petroleum jelly, then bandage before having a doctor evaluate.

Burns can sometimes worsen over time, so it’s always best to consult a doctor for any burn injury. According to the American Burn Association, these injuries should be seen at a burn center as quickly as possible:

  • Burns on the face, hands, feet, genitals or joints
  • Burns that wrap around the arms or legs
  • Deeper burns and burns covering more than 5% to 10% of the total skin area
  • Burns in people with underlying medical conditions, like diabetes

Our Burn Center

MedStar Washington Hospital Center is proud to provide the Washington, D.C., area with comprehensive burn treatment services at our Burn Center. We not only manage immediate effects of the burn and complete an evaluation, but we’re better equipped than most medical facilities to manage serious burn injuries that may require several weeks or months to heal. Our burn survivors have access to a multidisciplinary team of experienced physicians, advanced-practice nurses, therapists, dietitians, social workers and psychologists.

The team works together closely, taking a holistic approach to prevent infection, speed healing and maintain normal function. Burns can scar and tighten tissue, so rehabilitation is key to keep the joints healthy and moving. And we work closely with cosmetic and reconstructive surgeons to remediate scarring. Survivors of serious burns can even receive special nutritional care to aid healing.

The Burn Center team is also involved in both clinical and basic science research, so our patients can be assured that they’re getting the latest and greatest burn care.

A final reminder: This holiday, be sure to cook safely!  Everyone here at the Burn Center wishes you and your loved ones a happy, healthy holiday season, burn-free!

Burned while cooking?

At the Burn Center, we’re ready to help.

Call 202-788-5048 or Request an Appointment

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