Decorating Dangers: MU Researchers Caution Parents to Prevent Electrical Cord Burns to the Mouth

David Chang, MD

With millions of Americans decorating their homes for the holidays, tangles of extension cords and electrical wires are a common sight. Researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine have estimated more than 1,000 injuries in children caused by oral electrical burns were reported in emergency rooms from 1997 to 2012. The researchers caution parents and caregivers of young children to be mindful of the dangers of electrical burns to the mouth, especially during the holiday season.

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“Although we often worry about injury from toppled appliances, parents also should be aware of the potential for electrical burns to the mouth caused by a child mouthing the end or biting through an electrical cord,” said David Chang, MD, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the MU School of Medicine and co-author of the study. “In 1974, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimated 1,000 injuries associated with extension or appliance cord burns in a single year. Our study found that these injuries have decreased drastically to about 65 injuries a year. However, even one injury is too many when it can be prevented.”

The researchers reviewed the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System database. They found that 1,042 emergency room visits for pediatric oral electrical burns occurred between 1997 and 2012 — an average of 65.1 cases a year. Nearly three-fourths of the visits involved patients younger than 5 years old. The majority of the injuries did not require hospitalization — 77 percent of patients were treated and released — while the remainder were admitted or transferred to a higher level of care. Most injuries involved electrical outlets, extension cords and electrical wires.

“These injuries are largely unintentional and avoidable,” said Lauren Umstattd, MD, resident physician in the MU Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery and co-author of the study. “Due to their curiosity, young children are particularly at risk for oral electrical burns caused by household electrical cords, outlets and appliances. These burns can lead to devastating functional and cosmetic complications, which may require multiple corrective operations. We want families to be informed and safe while enjoying the holiday season.”

The otolaryngologists recommend the following tips to help prevent oral electrical burns:

Install tamper-resistant outlets or outlet covers.

Inspect cords for damage before using and check for damaged sockets or loose wires. If a cord is hot to the touch, don’t use it.

Keep unprotected cords out of sight and out of the way of foot traffic to avoid tripping. Don’t run a cord under a rug, which may cause the cord to overheat.

Be vigilant when children or pets are near electrical cords and outlets.

The study, “Pediatric Oral Electrical Burns: Incidence of Emergency Department Visits in the United States, 1997-2012,” was published in Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery, the peer-reviewed publication of the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Research reported in this publication was supported by the MU Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery. The researchers have no conflicts of interest to declare related to this study.