Kitchen First Aid 101: How to Treat Common Injuries

A person applying a band-aid to a finger cut on a knife while chopping tomatoes

[Photographs: Shutterstock]

With shelter-in-place orders still in effect in many parts of the country, people are cooking at home more than before. And while cooking at home is perfectly safe so long as cooks observe basic safety precautions, accidents happen, and it’s important to take them seriously to avoid infections and long-term injury. “When we talk about kitchen safety, the first thing we talk about is paying attention. It’s about setting everyone up to be safe, and to avoid harmful accidents,” says Laurel Cudden, the founder and owner of Grade-A Safety, a New York-based restaurant compliance and food safety group.

Cudden, who is currently sheltered in place with her three children, all under the age of 10, has been thinking a lot more about kitchen safety at home. “We’re in the kitchen a lot as a family, so I’m engaging with the kids on a daily basis about how to be safe, and how to keep each other safe,” she says.

Learning how to hold a knife, avoid burning yourself, or injuring someone else are the first steps in kitchen safety, and you can read here about how the Serious Eats team stays safe in the kitchen.

But besides basic kitchen safety, home cooks should know the basics of treating common kitchen injuries. So, we turned to Cudden and Mitch Cynamon, the owner of Initiate Care, a kitchen safety training consultancy, who both advise restaurant clients on kitchen first aid, for their advice. We also spoke with Dr. David Baskin, a New York-based internist, to confirm at-home treatments and to understand when it’s a good idea to seek professional medical care at an urgent care clinic, and when to head to the ER.

Editor’s note: This article was created for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

Burns

A person running a burnt finger under cool water

I remember hearing some restaurant cooks talk, with an air of trumped-up machismo, about how they liked to “burn a cut,” ostensibly to seal it. It doesn’t take a genius to realize this remedy is a fast track to infection and, possibly, permanent nerve damage. Between the stove, oven, microwave, tea kettle, pots, and pans—not to mention all the liquids cooking in those pots and pans—there are a lot of ways to burn yourself in a kitchen.

Most kitchen-related burns are first-degree burns, which will hurt a lot initially, and cause the skin to turn red and become raised, but with treatment, the pain will subside within hours. Minor second-degree burns will at first look like a first-degree burn but may also cause a small blister to form, and even with treatment the pain may last longer. Generally, these types of burns can be treated at home. More severe second- and third-degree burns, which doctors call a full thickness burn, and which cause immediate blistering, extreme pain, and may smell like burning flesh, need urgent medical care.

To treat first- and minor second-degree burns, all of our sources said to run cool water at a steady, comfortable rate over all types of skin burns for three to four minutes. Cool water has a mild anti-inflammatory and analgesic effect, and will flush any particulate matter away from the injury. Do not apply ice or ice water to burns. If you are wearing clothing or jewelry—especially rings—that have gotten soiled in the midst of the burn, or is on top of or near the burn, remove it immediately, if possible.

In the case of all burns, do not rely on folk remedies. “I like to remind my clients that simplicity is key. Don’t over complicate things,” Cynamon says. “Stay away from home remedies. Onions or butter do not help burns. Windex does not work on anything except as a glass cleaner.”

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Surface Burns

A surface burn occurs any time your skin comes into contact with an extremely hot surface, whether that’s the inside of your oven, the top of your stove, a glass baking dish, or a metal pot handle.

“Usually if you burn yourself on a metal pot or surface, your instinct is to withdraw, and the burning activity stops. Then you can run the skin under cool—not cold—water,” says Dr. Baskin. “I do not advise using ice with burns, because the skin has been damaged in a burn, and it can be dangerous to apply ice, which can further damage the unprotected skin.”

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Burns From a Flame

If a flame, such as from a pot or pan of food that catches on fire, from a gas burner, or from a blowtorch, lingers over the skin for more than a few seconds, it will cause a burn. Initially, you can treat these burns the same way, by running the affected area under cool water. But if the skin was exposed to an open flame for longer than a few seconds, go to an urgent care clinic, since you may not be able to visually determine the extent of the damage. “Burns from an open flame can be deeper than you originally think depending upon the severity and heat of the flame,” says Dr. Baskin.

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Liquid and Steam Burns

Different types of hot liquids can cause burns, too. Burns from boiling water-based liquids, such as tea, chicken stock, or soup, can be very severe, but they’re somewhat easier to soothe, as the offending liquid will easily come off the skin.

Steam burns can feel much more painful, as the water vapor may more easily penetrate the pores of the skin, and can damage it internally.

Burns from hot oil or molten sugar are similarly dangerous, as the hot liquid can be harder to remove from the skin, and the longer it stays on the surface of the skin, the longer it will burn.

“You don’t want the hot liquid, whatever it is, to roll down your body. You want it to run off your body in the shortest route possible,” says Mitch Cynamon, the owner of Initiate Care, a kitchen safety training consultancy, in order to prevent it from injuring any more skin than was harmed by the initial contact. You can do this by angling the affected body part as you run cool water over the burned skin to allow the oil or sugar to fall away from, not further into or down, other parts of your body.

After a few minutes of running the injured skin under cool water, assess the damage. “If it’s just red like a sunburn, the cool water should have helped, and then you can put a cool compress on, and take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain reliever like Tylenol, Motrin, or ibuprofen,” Baskin says. Neither Baskin nor Cudden nor Cynamon thought that putting any lotions or antibiotic ointments on burns, especially if the skin is still intact, would help. “The skin itself acts like a nice barrier to infection,” Dr. Baskin explains.

One important factor to keep in mind, according to Cynamon, is the surface area of the burn. “If liquid, especially oil, has spilled or splashed over a larger area of the body like down your leg, or an area where there are vital organs, like over your chest, depending on the level of pain you’re experiencing, and if blisters start forming quickly, seek medical care,” he advises.

If a blister forms, don't pop it. “Oftentimes burns are in problematic or high-use areas like a palm, but I do not think that patients should pop their own blisters,” Baskin says. This can lead to infection and further complications. The blister may pop on its own, or a medical professional can do it if it’s urgent or extremely uncomfortable. Otherwise, cover the burn with a gauze pad (ideally, one that has a nonstick coating, like Xeroform), bandage it, keep it dry, and change the dressing daily until the wound heals.

Molten sugar can lead to more dangerous burns, notes Cynamon, because “sugar sticks to the skin, and it’s hard to pull it off the skin without injuring the top layer, but if you don’t pull it off quickly, your skin is essentially cooking underneath,” he says. Hot oil is similarly more dangerous than a burn from hot water or a water-based liquid because it can reach temperatures higher than boiling water.

The signs of a more serious second- or third-degree burn are: The skin starts to peel or break down; immediate blistering; and severe pain. But also note that no pain at all is dangerous: “It may not feel like anything at first, because the nerves have been burned out,” Cynamon says. You may even smell the skin burning, which is going to smell “like barbecue,” he says, not just like burnt arm hair. Regardless, do not wash a third-degree burn, and seek medical attention immediately.

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Chemical Burns

Though burns from chemicals are rare in home settings, they can happen. Lye is sometimes used in pretzel making, and can burn the skin, as can oven cleaner, bleach, ammonia, and many drain cleaners. “The most important thing is to read the labels on chemicals you’re using,” says Cudden. All manufacturers are required to have safety data sheets on their website, along with first aid steps, so you can immediately determine the potential severity of the burn. The manufacturer will note whether mixing the chemical with another chemical can increase the potential severity of a chemical reaction on the skin.

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Cuts

A finger bleeding from cutting herself in the kitchen

“I'm not even going to talk about blood,” Anthony Bourdain wrote, of working as a cook, in Kitchen Confidential. “Let's just say we cut ourselves a lot in the kitchen and leave it at that.” Later, in a scene that takes place after a kitchen shift, he notes that he’d cut his thumb earlier in the day, “and in spite of a butterfly closure and three layers of bandage, it just wouldn't stop bleeding; blood drained onto my pants leg as he talked, fell on the floor in big noisy droplets.” He doesn’t once mention going to the doctor; the words “hospital” and “first aid kit” do not appear in the book. But no one likes human blood in their food (theoretically), and knives can quickly maim. Learn from Bourdain’s casual attitude toward cuts—you will cut yourself if you cook frequently—but make sure to treat your skin, fingers, and limbs with care to avoid long-term damage.

A clean cut from a knife may look less complicated than multiple jagged cuts from a blender blade, but both can be severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. That also goes for cuts from broken glass or dishware. Assuming you have not stabbed, disemboweled, or dismembered your body—if you have, obviously call an ambulance immediately—as with burns, the first step is to hold the cut skin under cool, running water. After that, assess the depth of the cut, determine whether or not a tendon has been injured, and look at the color of the blood. Shallow cuts will bleed bright red; deeper cuts, which require medical attention, will bleed blood that “looks like red wine, or the color of a nice Merlot,” says Cynamon.

The location of the cut is important in assessing damage. It may not even be that deep, but, especially if it’s on the palm, wrist, or a knuckle, the cut may have hit a tendon, in which case it will need urgent care to avoid permanent damage. Single, shallow cuts not involving tendons, ligaments, or bones, may heal on their own at home as long as they stop bleeding within an hour. If not, head to an urgent care center or the ER. If you have cut the skin deeply or widely in multiple places—on a spinning blender blade, for example—head to the ER. If you’ve cut off the tip of your finger, depending on how far past the nail you’ve cut, a surgeon may be able to reattach it if they're able to see you quickly.

Finally, ask yourself when you last got a tetanus shot. If you can’t remember, or it was more than 10 years ago, it’s time to call your primary care doctor to get one within 24 hours of your cut. Because kitchens are full of potential contamination, any cut could become a site for infection.

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From a Knife or Mandoline

“A clean cut from a knife is easier to evaluate than a cut from a food processor blade,” says Dr. Baskin. The first thing you want to do is sit down, so you don’t fall over or pass out. “Then, you want to flush the cut with running cool water, to remove any foreign matter, and then look for the blood to stop flowing.” Cool water will help reduce blood flow, and aids in relieving some of the pain, allowing you to assess depth. “Put a clean cloth, a tissue or paper napkin or paper towel, over the cut. Make a cold compress out of ice and cold water to help reduce blood flow,” Dr. Baskin says. Apply some pressure with the cold compress, and check to see if blood has stopped flowing after 30 seconds to a minute. If the cut is still bleeding vigorously, or is clearly more than an inch wide and in an area of the hand where there are many nerves and tendons, such as the palm, knuckles, or wrist, it’s time to seek medical care.

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Moving, Multi-Blade Wounds

“Any irregular cut, where tissue is chopped or appears grinded—that is a problem and requires medical evaluation,” says Dr. Baskin. Enough said.

“Injuries to the hand can get very complicated,” says Dr. Baskin. “If you have a laceration where you cut a tendon, and you don’t deal with it quickly, you can have permanent loss of movement.” Even if the cut looks shallow, if it’s on a finger knuckle, in the palm of the hand, or on the inside of the wrist, if you experience pain with movement, numbness, or limited movement, seek the care of a doctor. In addition to stitches to help heal the surface of the skin, a surgeon may need to sew any cut tendons back together so that they heal properly.

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Other Incidents

A hand plugging in an appliance into an outlet

Allergic Reactions on the Skin

Though it may cause a burning sensation, mixing cleaning chemicals, especially near softer metals like aluminum or other ingredients, can cause allergic contact dermatitis, or an allergic reaction that’s less severe than a chemical burn. It will feel itchy, and the skin may redden, but Cudden said that rinsing under cool water to remove the irritant from the skin, and then taking an allergy medication like Benadryl, will help alleviate the reaction. “You’ll know if it’s more serious than that; if the pain or reaction does not subside, or you have a reaction to something you’ve never had a reaction to before, seek medical care,” Cudden says.

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Electric Shock

“I live in an old house that doesn’t have grounded outlets, and I’ve seen sparks fly when plugging in older electronic appliances,” Cudden says. To be on the safe side, use only grounded outlets with kitchen appliances, and replace any countertop appliances that are more than 20 years old, or have weakened or faulty cords. Always keep children away from plugs and outlets.

“A serious electric shock is when it knocks you out, you lose consciousness. That requires a trip to the doctor,” Cudden advises.

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If You Get Something in Your Eye

Lots of things can get into the eyes by accident, including liquids, dry ingredients, acids, spices, or kitchen tools. The first step is to remember not to rub your eye, no matter what. “If something sharp has caused an abrasion or an issue with the cornea, or if you are having vision trouble, seek medical care. Never rub your eye, as that will just cause more trauma,” Dr. Baskin says.

For most things, such as if you’ve squirted lemon juice or chili powder in your eye, immediately run cool water over the eyeball. “Pull the lower lid down, and crouch so you can splash or run cool water into the eye, to force foreign matter out,” Dr. Baskin says. Using clean hands to splash your eye with cool water works well to flush any particles out. Then, if you can, repeat while pulling the upper eyelid up and away from the eye while running or splashing cool water on it. If there’s a larger object stuck in the eye, seek medical care.

“If it’s hot oil or sugar that got into the eye, that needs to be looked at,” says Dr. Baskin. The cool water should lessen the pain, and it should not affect your vision. If you are experiencing a lot of pain or your vision is affected, head to an urgent care center or the ER.

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If You Cut Off the Tip of Your Finger

Many, many people have cut the tips off their fingers. In general, if you’ve shaved a couple of millimeters off, an ER attendant is going to give you a bandage, and send you and your slightly flattened finger tip home to heal.

If you've cut off any more than a few millimeters, up to the growth part of the nail, it can probably be sewn back on. “If there is any piece of the finger that is completely cut off it should be put on ice ASAP, as should be the part of the finger that has the laceration, with clean paper towels to help with the bleeding, and you should seek medical advice as soon as possible,” says Dr. Baskin.

The same advice goes for cuts lower than the tip of the finger, where tendons (and nerves) may have been damaged—even if the cut did not go all the way through the finger. Especially for severe cuts, cover the cut piece of skin with clean paper towels or cloth, and bring these bloody bandages with you so that the ER doctor can assess blood loss.

Cynamon notes, though, that he’s seen a lot of cases where doctors weren't able to reattach the tip, especially if it was cut completely off. Which is all the more reason to learn basic kitchen safety and how to hold and use a knife properly—so as to avoid losing part of a finger!

And that’s just a good reminder in general, that kitchen first aid starts with kitchen safety. “The more you keep basic kitchen best safety practices in mind,” Cudden says, “and stay alert in the kitchen, the less likely it will be that you will injure yourself, your family members, or have to seek medical care.”

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