Study reveals dangers of hot water bottles

Published: 15 November 2012 at 13:28

St Andrew’s Anglia Ruskin research highlights risk of burns from spontaneous rupture

New research – the first of its kind in Europe – has revealed the dangers associated with the spontaneous rupture of hot water bottles.

Burn injuries resulting from hot water bottle use is authored by Dr Shehab Jabir, Quentin Frew and Professor Peter Dziewulski of the St Andrew’s Anglia Ruskin (StAAR) Research Unit.

StAAR is a partnership between Anglia Ruskin University and the world-renowned St Andrew’s Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns based at Mid Essex Hospitals Trust.  The new research unit will be officially launched at Anglia Ruskin’s Postgraduate Medical Institute in Chelmsford on Friday, 16 November.

The study, which examined the case notes of 50 patients with burns resulting from hot water bottle use from between January 2004 and February 2012, found that exactly half of all injuries were the result of the hot water bottle bursting. 

In eight of the cases there was some degree of patient misuse, such as sitting or stepping on the bottle.  In the remaining 17 cases there was no clear evidence of misuse and the bottle appeared to have burst spontaneously.

Accidental spilling of hot water while filling a hot water bottle accounted for 32% of injuries, with the remaining 18% due to contact with an excessively hot surface.

The research found that 80% of the injuries occurred between October and February, and the majority of burns were scald injuries, with the commonest sites being the abdomen and lower limbs.  The mean time taken for the burns to heal was 25.34 days and in the most serious cases two children required skin grafts and one patient needed local flap coverage (an area of skin, raised with its own blood supply, used to cover a defect).

Mrs Brenda Smith from Westcliff-on-Sea in Essex is currently receiving treatment from the St Andrew’s Centre for Plastic Surgery and Burns at Broomfield hospital in Chelmsford, following a burns injury caused by a hot water bottle.  Mrs Smith, aged 63, said:

“I’ve always used hot water bottles and never experienced any problems with them.
“I’d filled the hot water bottle about half an hour before as I was feeling cold.  I moved the hot water bottle onto my chest and it just split right the way across, even though I had a cover on it.  I still don’t know what caused it as it was only about a year old.  I’m just grateful it didn’t happen immediately after I filled it or it could have been much worse.
“I applied cold flannels to my chest and then went straight to A & E at Southend Hospital where I was referred to the burns unit at Broomfield.  I spent eight days on the unit and required a skin graft which is still healing.”

Quentin Frew, Visiting Clinical Fellow at Anglia Ruskin, said:

“When looking at burns from hot water bottles it is sometimes difficult to say which have been caused by patient misuse and which are due to poor manufacturing standards.
“What is clear is that there is a need to increase awareness of the ability of hot water bottles to cause significant long-term burn injuries and also highlight the precautionary measures that could be taken to prevent such injuries.  One common problem is people storing them incorrectly, which can cause the rubber to perish.
“What we have seen at the hospital is only the tip of the iceberg, as the majority of these cases go unreported.  People try and manage the burns themselves, often because they are embarrassed about what they have done or the area they have burnt, such as their genitalia.
“Anecdotally we have seen an increase in burns caused by hot water bottles in the last couple of years.  It could be that more people are using them as a cost-effective way of keeping warm or it could be that people are buying cheaper hot water bottles over the internet from abroad.  That’s why we encourage people to look for the Kitemark safety standard when buying hot water bottles.”