When the weather turns frigid, there is only one thing to do: make a pot of chicken-noodle soup. On the first cold afternoon in early December, I simmered a whole rotisserie chicken with fennel, dill, and orzo, then ladled it into bowls for a cozy family meal. Just as I thought we’d reached peak hygge, my five-month-old son suddenly grabbed my steaming bowl and tipped the soup all over himself. Piercing screams and a frenzied taxi ride to the pediatric emergency room ensued.
My husband and I waited in the ER with our pantsless, crying child, racked with guilt. But when we told doctors and nurses what had happened, they seemed unperturbed. As they bandaged my son’s blistering skin, they explained that children get burned by soup—especially noodle soup—all the time. “Welcome to parenthood,” a nurse said, as we boarded an ambulance that transferred us to a nearby burn unit.
That children are frequently scalded by hot liquids makes perfect sense. But soup? Indeed, soup burns “are very common,” James Gallagher, the director of the Burn Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork–Presbyterian, where I’d brought my son, told me. After hot tap water, soup is a leading cause of burn-related visits to the hospital among young children in the United States. An estimated 100,000 American children are scalded by spilled food and beverages each year—and in many cases, soup is the culprit. Pediatric soup injuries happen so frequently that an astonishing amount of scientific literature is dedicated to it, generating terms such as meal-time morbidity, starch scalds, and the cooling curve of broth.
Anyone can get burned by soup, yet kids can’t help but knock things over. Infants have minimal control over their grabby little hands, and older children still lack balance and coordination. Give them a bowl of soup, or even put one near them, and you have a recipe for disaster. Consider instant noodle soup—the kind prepared by pouring boiling water into a Styrofoam container with dried noodles, or filling it with water and microwaving it. In one small study from 2020, 21 children ages 4 to 12 carried foam cups of blue paint—meant to mimic containers of instant noodles—from a microwave toward a table. Blue splashes on their white shirts revealed that nearly one in five children spilled the “soup,” most commonly on their arms.
Part of the danger is the nature of soup itself. Boiling water is hot enough to scald skin. But salt, oil, and other ingredients raise water’s boiling point, meaning that soup can reach a much higher temperature and cause greater injury, Gallagher said. Soup also stays hotter for longer, prolonging the potential for harm: A 2007 study found that certain soups took more time to cool than tap water after being boiled. Even when slightly cooled, to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit, it can cause “a significant scald burn,” one commentary noted.
Not all soups are created equal. As the authors of the 2007 study found, noodles “may adhere to the skin” and cause a deep burn, calling to mind the stinging tentacles of a jellyfish. They may also stay hot longer than expected. “Noodles do seem to be particularly problematic,” Wendalyn Little, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine who studies soup burns, told me. Hearty soups are generally more hazardous than brothy ones: Engineers who studied two kinds of canned soup—chunky (chicken noodle) versus runny (tomato)—concluded that the former can lead to more severe burns because its solid constituents prevent it from flowing off the skin. “A runny soup seems a lot like water, but what if it’s a New England clam chowder? That’s real thick and stays in place,” Gallagher said. The chicken soup I’d made for my family was on the brothy side, but the orzo made it particularly viscous. (Thank goodness I hadn’t made gloopy congee that day.)
For these reasons, perhaps the most dangerous soup of all is instant noodle soup. Nearly 2,000 American kids get burned by it annually, according to one estimate; in an analysis published earlier this year, this kind of soup caused 31 percent of pediatric scalds in a Chicago hospital over a decade. These products are dangerous for reasons beyond their contents. They tend to be packaged in tall, flimsy containers that are perilously easy to topple. Microwaveable versions can be dangerous for kids who haven’t yet fully grasped that a room-temperature product, heated for several minutes in a microwave, can come out piping hot. “Fluids like that can be superheated such that when you touch them, there’s almost like a mini explosion,” splashing boiling liquid onto skin, Gallagher explained.
Soup burns can be quite serious. In a few cases, the burns can be so severe that they require tube feeding or intravenous narcotics. The 2007 study of children scalded by instant noodle soup noted that all of them had “at least second-degree burns,” which damage the first two layers of skin and usually erupt into blisters. The children who were burned on their upper body—mostly young kids, who tend to reach toward objects on elevated surfaces—stayed in the hospital for an average of 11 days.
In most cases, however, burns from soup are painful but not life-threatening. Scarring, if it occurs at all, is worst in childhood, then fades away, Gallagher said. If burns do happen, he told me, immediately remove any clothes or diapers soaked with hot liquid, then run cool water over the injury for 20 minutes and call your doctor. Avoid applying ice to the injured area, he added, because doing so can damage tissue.
Kids move on quickly. It’s the parents who deal with long-term consequences. “There’s a special kind of guilt when your baby is burned,” Gallagher said. A week after the incident, my family returned to the burn unit for a follow-up visit. Parents with small children filled the waiting room; we exchanged knowing glances. A nurse removed a thick bandage from my son’s thigh. Fortunately, unlike his parents, he emerged without a scar.