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Cooking fires: How to avoid injury this Thanksgiving (Q&A)

Thanksgiving is a great time for family get-togethers, but burns from cooking accidents can be serious, painful and require the use of health insurance. We recently interviewed Dr. Richard L. Gamelli about how to avoid cooking accidents. Dr. Gamelli is the director of the Burn & Shock Trauma Research Institute and director of the Burn Center at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. He also is senior vice president and provost of the Health Sciences Division at Loyola University Chicago.

Thanksgiving cooking fires

Home cooking accidents are common on Thanksgiving. What safety advice do you have for people who are planning to host meals for their families?

If you do it the right way, you get to enjoy the holiday. These holidays come only once a year and bring families together. No one wants to be injured. It is about understanding that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Read the (food preparation) instructions on the package carefully and well in advance of the day you will be using it. Follow the instructions and use extreme caution at all times. Avoid drinking alcohol when cooking so you remain alert and focused. Pay attention to small children when they are around the cooking area. Children are the most frequent visitors to the Loyola burn center, usually for scalds (a burn from a hot liquid or steam).

When cooking burns occur at home, how should they be treated?

If there has been blistering of tissues, (you should) seek medical advice. It’s one thing to get burned if your hand is under hot water. It’s another thing if there is a fire. You can't overestimate the potential for getting in trouble. If you burn a small area, run it under cold water and you have redness but no tearing of the skin, you probably can treat it at home if you are cautious. That assumes you are healthy and that you aren’t on medication that would interfere with your body's ability to fight infection.

Hospital visits often exceed the average person's ability to pay without health insurance. If burns require hospitalization, how much might a typical stay cost?

If they just require aggressive care, they could be out in less than a week, but people with large burns could be there several weeks. We have people who spent several months with us. Our average length of stay is about 5 days. If you are in an intensive care unit, it’s very expensive. If somebody has an extended period of care, you are starting to talk about hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost. A major burn is a significant cost.

Do pots with long handles represent a special danger to children who may be able to reach them and pull them off stoves?

Kids watch everything the adult does. They figure, 'I can do it.' You have to be careful if you are using pans with long handles. If a child grabs (a pan) and flips it on them, now you have a young person who is injured who shouldn’t have been.

We all have left something on the burner to boil. It splashes over and makes a mess. If it is oil it makes a fire. You have to be attentive. You can't walk away.

Not everyone realizes the importance of using fire extinguishers especially designed for cooking fires. How dangerous is to attempt to douse an oil or grease fire with water?

(The burning oil will splatter) all over you. You wind up with leopard skin from all of the small areas of burns. They mostly heal on their own, but they heal with a permanent cosmetic change: scars, pigment differentiation.

Some people use deep fryers to cook their Thanksgiving turkey. Is it safe to cook a turkey in this manner?

(Yes), if you have the right equipment and take the right precautions. Oil and water don't mix, particularly when the oil is hot and the water is cold. If you buy a fresh turkey, there will be moisture on the outside. When you put it in hot oil, it explodes.

Purchase a modern deep fryer that has the most updated safety features, like the clamped lid and shut off features. Read the instructions carefully. Keep children well away from the fryer amd keep a fire extinguisher handy to quell any flames. Don’t use the turkey fryer in a covered garage or on a wooden surface such as a deck, which can catch fire. Also, don’t use the turkey fryer (outdoors) if there has been rain or snow.

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