How much does a hot drink scald cost?

The NHS spends an estimated £131 million per year on emergency hospital admissions because of childhood accidents. Just a small amount of money invested in injury prevention can save many times that amount further down the line.

To help you make the case for child accident prevention in your area, we’ve put together some examples of accidental injuries, and given an indication of the cost of each of these accidents.

Hot drink scalds – the scale of the problem

  • Hot drinks are the number one cause of scald injuries among young children.
  • In 2008-09, almost 800 under fives were admitted to hospital in England with burns from hot drinks, food, fat and cooking oils - that’s two young children every day.
  • In the five years from 2003-04 to 2008-09, there was a 37% increase in the number of such hospital admissions.
  • Over 6,500 under fives visit accident and emergency departments each year because of scalds from kettles and hot drinks.

Henry – scalded by a hot drink

Steaming cup of coffee

This case study shows that even for relatively minor scalding (scalds that cover less than 10% of the body, and do not require skin grafts) the costs to the NHS and the economy are considerable.

The case

Henry, a two-year-old boy, is admitted to hospital following an accident with a hot drink. His mother made herself a cup of tea then went to answer the phone, leaving Henry standing near the side table. She did not think that the tea was hot enough to scald Henry, as it had been standing for around five minutes.

However, young children’s skin is much thinner than adults’, and temperatures that would cause only minor pain to adults can badly scald young children. Henry grabbed the cup of tea and spilt it all over his hands, crying out in pain.

Henry and his mother live a long way from the hospital, and his mother does not own a car. She calls an ambulance to collect him and take him to the A&E department of a hospital in the centre of Bristol.

At the hospital he is admitted straight away and put under general anaesthetic so that his wounds can be cleaned. The doctors identify his wounds as partial-thickness burns – red, blistered skin which will take over two weeks to heal. Once the wounds on Henry’s hands are clean, they are encased in gloves made from a synthetic dressing that aids fast healing.

Henry is kept in hospital for the next 48 hours so that hospital staff can monitor his recovery. His mother phones her work and takes the next two days off so that she can stay with Henry. After 48 hours he is given an oral tablet to sedate him while his wounds are checked. All is well, so Henry is discharged, with arrangements made for a future visit to check on the healing process.

The financial cost

(NB: These costs are designed to give you an indication of the amount that was spent on Henry’s treatment. They rely on data provided by third parties. We have chosen reliable sources and you can view these at the bottom of this section. However, because of the variation in costs of treating injuries, these costs should be treated as a guide only.)

Hospital bed in a specialist burns unit**
Dressings** £235
Medication** £1
Theatre visits

Lost days of work*** £1,551


The overall cost of a relatively minor hot drink scald is over £4,000. The majority of this money is shouldered by the NHS, but the days that Henry’s mother had to take off will have cost her employer over £500 per day.

It is easy to see how costs can mount up for the NHS. This is a relatively minor hot drink scald and injuries can be far more serious, for example if a baby on a mother’s lap spills a hot drink all over themselves. However, if each of the 798 hospital admissions in 2008-09 had cost £2,587 to treat, this would have cost the NHS over £2 million.

*Unit costs of health and social care Netten et al 2006 – average cost of patient journey.

**Case study taken from Griffiths 2006 – The Cost of a Hot Drink Scald (This case study is set in Bristol, as in our example, and costs could vary slightly by region. For more general information on costs, visit the ‘argument for action’ page of this website.)

***These costs are taken from a survey carried out by the CBI which found that “in 2007 the average direct cost of absence was £517 per employee.” This includes lost production and the expense of covering absence with temporary staff or overtime.

The emotional cost

On top of the financial cost, the accident will also carry an emotional cost – not only would it take a toll on Henry himself, but it would also have a profound effect on Henry’s mother.

Henry will require special care while his wounds heal, which could take anything up to two weeks – in that time he could miss out on school and have difficulty performing physical tasks. His mental well-being will also have been affected by the accident, and he may well take a while to get over the shock. Likewise his mother may have difficulty coming to terms with the injury that her child has suffered.

How could it be prevented?

One of the reasons that this accident happened was that Henry’s mother simply did not know that the drink she had left on the coffee table was still dangerous.

CAPT has calculated that, after standing for 10 minutes, the temperature of a mug of tea or coffee made with milk will be around 60ºC. This will scald a young child in less than one and a half seconds. Even after standing for 15 minutes, the temperature of the tea or coffee will still be around 55ºC. This will scald a young child in 10 seconds.

Most parents are simply unaware that young children’s skin is much thinner than adults’ (in fact, babies’ skin is 15 times thinner). But it’s the reason why, if babies and toddlers grab at a cup of tea or coffee, even one that is cooling down, they are much more likely to be scalded.

Helping parents

Community education campaigns help to raise awareness of this issue. For example, during Child Safety Week 2009, Bradford Safeguarding Children Board ran an educational presentation for parents entitled ‘Hot drinks are a burning issue.’ With support from toddler groups across the district, they gathered parents together for an informal session where they taught them about the dangers of having hot drinks near toddlers and babies.

Many organisations find CAPT’s ‘Fancy a Cuppa?’ DVD resource pack helpful in community education work with parents and carers. The pack contains everything needed to present the issue of hot drinks to parents and carers including a DVD and support materials to reinforce the message.

Find out more about CAPT resources.

There are also a number of free resources online for parents to visit. The Child Safety Week website has a number of child safety tips for parents and carers, as well as activity sheets to raise awareness of potential dangers in the home.

Hot drink scalds in your area

Have you identified the accident prevention priorities in your area? Are hot drink scalds one of your biggest problems? We'd like to hear about any activity in England that helps to prevent hot drink scalds. Get in touch, or leave your comment in the box below.


Updated June 2011