Mother of girl burned in social media 'fire challenge' has message for other parents

June 02, 2020
Maria Washington and her daughter Khai
Maria Washington poses with her 9-year-old daughter Khai. Photo provided

Maria Washington of Salters, South Carolina, has a message for other parents after what happened to her 9-year-old daughter.

“Honestly, I want y’all to put this out. She got burned because of a social media challenge. Parents really need to pay attention to what their kids are watching. You need to follow up and pay attention, because that’s what happened to her. They were following a challenge. They put hand sanitizer on her clothing and lit it on fire.”

The fire challenge has been around for a while. Young people get a flammable substance — isopropyl alcohol or acetone in the past, hand sanitizer more recently — and set fire to it. In some cases, they put the substance on a relatively safe surface such as aluminum foil. But in others, they put it on their own skin or clothing and record the results to post on social media.

Dr. Aaron Lesher 
Dr. Aaron Lesher

Washington’s daughter, Khai, ended up at the MUSC Health Burn Center, which recently expanded to become the only burn center in the state to treat both children and adults. Aaron Lesher, M.D., described what’s involved in healing burns like Khai’s. “They’re intensely painful, so pain management is one major issue. The other big issue we struggle with is the burn wound dressing change, especially with a bigger burn.”

Khai was in the hospital for three days. “We were basically sedating her, getting the burn nice and clean, getting a new dressing on and then evaluating the burn,” Lesher said. “They can very easily convert to full thickness burns. I think thankfully she’s going to make it through without a skin graft.”

Steven Kahn, M.D., leads the MUSC Health South Carolina Burn Center and serves as an associate professor in the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Medicine. The fire challenge is nothing new to him. Kahn wrote about the phenomenon in a 2016 article in the Journal of Burn Care & Research.

Dr. Steven Kahn 
Dr. Steven Kahn

“We’ve seen multiple iterations of poor decision making related to self-inflicted burn injury that’s been hyped on social media over the past 10 years. I’ve seen multiple rounds of this all around the country in different burn centers I’ve worked in. It started with things like the salt and ice challenge — they put salt and ice on their arm and hold it as long as they can, 10 to 15 minutes, and get third-degree frostbite,” Kahn said.

“We previously had a wave of people throwing isopropyl alcohol on themselves and setting it on fire. I’ve probably seen at least 15 patients who have done that to themselves.” 

But hand sanitizer takes the fire challenge to a scary new level, Kahn said. And during the coronavirus pandemic, the sticky substance is everywhere. “This is really the first time we’ve seen it with hand sanitizer. It creates a more dangerous situation. Because isopropyl alcohol is a liquid, it doesn’t stay long, and they can jump in the water to extinguish themselves. But hand sanitizer has more viscosity. It sticks and stays on longer. The longer you’re in contact with a hot substance, the worse your burn is. So this is really, really dangerous.”

Kahn and Lesher have both seen social media challenges result in the need for surgery, terrible scars, permanent deformities and life-threatening injuries. “They are unsafe and should never be attempted under any circumstances,” Kahn said.

Their concerns about hand sanitizer come during a busy period for the newly expanded burn center, Lesher said. “Our burn volume has increased significantly since the COVID-19 lockdown. We’ve had lots of accidental burns. Scald burns, particularly, which is the most common mechanism in children. There are a lot of ramen noodle burns and coffee burns and campfire burns. We’ve definitely had an uptick in our inpatients because people are staying home more.”

People with burn injuries need specialized care, Kahn said. “We have a large, comprehensive burn center that spans our campus so we can accommodate burn patients of all ages. Patients 15 and under are housed in the burn unit at Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital. People 16 and up are treated in the main hospital. 

“There’s no need for anyone to leave the local area for treatment, regardless of their age. We are very fortunate to have Level 1 trauma centers for adult and pediatric patients, a burn program that can accommodate all ages and an amazing pediatric hospital, all on the same campus. MUSC Health can provide the highest level of care to all injured South Carolinians, regardless of age or mechanism of injury.”

Washington is grateful her daughter was able to be treated there. “She’s a whole lot better now. Thank God she doesn’t have to get a skin graft. They said because her body was so healthy and she’s a healthy child, she’s going to recover really well from it. I’m very thankful for that.”