Hot water bottles are like best friends: low maintenance, easy to understand, warm and inviting.
At least, that’s what I thought until discovering that they can also be unreliable and highly dangerous.
What’s more, I’ve now learned that — unlike best friends — you should change yours every three months if using them daily.
That’s what a senior nurse in the burns unit of London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital told me after I was sent there from A&E during last month’s cold snap.
After letting out the air, I screwed the top back on and cradled the bottle to my chest, holding it as tightly as I could
It was so cold and frosty that my once trusty pink hot water bottle was pressed into service every bedtime to provide comfort as the temperatures dropped (although, I confess, I tend to have a hottie at any time of the year).
On one particularly cold night, I boiled the kettle as usual and poured the water into the bottle — which, in my case, has never had a woolly cover.
After letting out the air, I screwed the top back on and cradled the bottle to my chest, holding it as tightly as I could.
Suddenly, I began shrieking in agony as boiling water streamed through my blouse and ran down my chest. At first I assumed I’d not put the top back on properly, but then I saw that the bottle had split on the neck seam.
The pain was excruciating. I threw off my clothes and stood under the cold shower for a few minutes — which apparently is nothing like long enough. It should have been 20 minutes.
To avoid hot water bottle burns, the advice is to use hot, but not boiling, water to fill it. And don’t fill it more than three-quarters full
Then, for almost a week, I did nothing about the burn, thinking that it should be left uncovered and that nature would produce its own balm. It didn’t.
Within days, my breast was a raw mix of split skin, pus and blood. Then it morphed into an open wound about six inches long and four inches wide; an invitation for infection.
At first, my husband played down the injury — until I told him that it was similar to what he would experience if boiling water was poured over his genitals.
I was careful not to wear a bra and dressed in the flimsiest of tops so as little as possible would rub against the angry flesh. Even so, the wound got worse, not better, and I was taking copious amounts of ibuprofen for the continuing pain.
Finally, I called my GP and was advised to go to A&E. Better late than never, I told myself, but the first question the young doctor examining me asked was: ‘Why did you leave it so long?’
He took a number of photos to pass on to the burns consultants, then sent me straight to the burns unit, ominously close to the intensive care unit, where for five weeks I was treated for third-degree burns as an outpatient.
At first, this involved carefully dressing the affected area with what one nurse called ‘magic cream’. Flamazine, containing silver sulfadiazine, is used to prevent infection and help remove burnt, dead tissue.
To prevent scarring of the breast, I was told to apply the cream thickly, after first massaging any dead skin away, and then cover the burn in a wad of gauze and sticky tape.
‘Burns should always be covered, and the best way to do this at first is with cling film, which is pretty sterile, retains moisture and keeps air away — it’s the air that increases the pain,’ says Andy Williams, a consultant burns and plastic surgeon at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital.
‘Then it’s a case of giving it time to heal before we would consider a skin graft.’
A skin graft is where a thin layer of skin is taken from one area of your body, often the thigh, to cover a burned area.
Mr Williams says there is a lack of awareness among the public about treating burns. He has known people who have covered them in flour, egg white, butter and even toothpaste in desperate attempts to assuage the pain.
And it seems hot water bottles have a lot to answer for. The British Burn Association says that one person every day is severely scalded when filling up a hot water bottle, or when it bursts.
‘We have patients coming in all the time after accidents with hot water bottles,’ says Mr Williams.
‘Some of the cheaper ones are hardly fit for purpose. A burn can be a devastating injury that can last a lifetime.’
While in the waiting room, I spoke to one man who had burned his right arm while working on his car’s compressor, which had overheated alarmingly; and a woman in her 30s told me that she’d spilt a scalding cup of tea over her hand, made worse because she was holding her baby in the other arm at the time.
Some areas of the body, where there is a good blood supply, do better than others when it comes to healing from a burn.
Fortunately that includes the face and scalp, whereas the limbs below the knee, where circulation is not so strong, will take longer to heal.
‘Blood supply is why a burn on the back of the hand might need a skin graft, whereas the palm won’t,’ says Mr Williams.
Six weeks on, my wound is better but it is not yet certain if there will be permanent scarring.
To avoid hot water bottle burns, the advice is to use hot, but not boiling, water to fill it. And don’t fill it more than three-quarters full.
Expel the air above the water level before sealing, as this stops hot steam escaping and burning you. And check your hottie for wear and tear, including little bits of rubber when you empty it out.
I’ve invested in a new hot water bottle, and I’m now more comfortable using a cover, which will at least offer some protection if the same thing happens again.
One thing is for sure: I will forever be wary of hot water bottles. Yes, they are undoubtedly companionable — but they can also be extremely harmful.