If you were to rank home injury nightmares for parents, burns would likely be near the top. One of the first safety lessons we teach kids, after all, is that stoves are hot (“no touch!”). But a recent study from the University of Chicago says this fear might be somewhat misplaced — and that hot food itself (namely, Ramen Noodles) are one of the most common sources for childhood burns.
The study, published in the journal Burns, examined the records for all pediatric burns caused by hot liquids seen at the University of Chicago burn center between 2010 and 2020. The research team found that almost one-third of the 790 cases had been from instant noodles, such as those that come in prefilled cups ready for the microwave.
According to a news release for the study, instant noodle scalds result in different burn patterns than hot water scalds due to the starchy liquid included in the container. These scalds can be dangerous, resulting in hospitalizations and even skin grafts.
“Anecdotally, it felt like every other child we were consulted on for a burn was injured by instant noodles, so we wanted to dive into the data to see what the trend really was,” senior study author Sebastian Vrouwe, assistant professor of surgery at University of Chicago Medicine, said in a release for the study. “Our hope is to develop the groundwork for future burn prevention programming, as essentially all childhood burns are in some way preventable.”
Though this was a highly localized study — the research team noted that the majority of children admitted for instant noodle scalds were Black and from low-income communities in the hospital’s South Side service area — researchers believe the results could be easily repeated in large metro areas throughout the country.
Because of the ease of preparation of many instant noodle cups, children often make instant noodles unsupervised while caregivers are out of the home working. Instant noodles are accessible in many neighborhoods — especially for folks living in food deserts or in areas where grocery stores are less common than convenience stores.
Children who presented with instant noodle scalds were also older than those who presented with other types of scald injuries, such as from hot bath water. Averaging almost 5.5 years old, the researchers described the age as “the age at which children are able to attempt to prepare instant noodles, but not old enough to do so safely.”
“Direct caregiver supervision is one important step in burn prevention,” Vrouwe explained. “The amount of heat contained in these noodles can easily cause second- and third-degree burns in anyone, but young children are particularly vulnerable due to their relatively smaller bodies and thinner skin.”
Vrouwe suggests education as a preventative. “We were surprised by the sheer magnitude of the problem, which confirmed that focused effort and awareness on these types of burns could have a significant impact in the communities that our burn center serves,” said Vrouwe.
Adults or older children should always remove hot liquids from the microwave for younger children and set them aside until the contents have cooled enough to be eaten safely. Vrouwe also recommends eating on a flat surface like a table instead of holding the bowl or cup of noodles on the lap.