A patient of mine named Ralph, came in with what he thought were strange-looking dark, patterned marks on the top of one of his legs. He had begun to see these before but noticed they were more prominent after his most recent plane trip to California. He had heard that poor circulation can develop from frequent, longer plane rides and wondered if that’s what these marks were from. He was quite surprised when I told him no, they’re not from poor circulation – they’re burns from the laptop computer you work on all the way to California!
In fact, this condition is so common in people who use laptops, and other personal heated devices, that it’s been called toasted skin syndrome. Here’s what I told Ralph and would like you to know about avoiding the health risks of toasted skin syndrome.
Toast is for Bread Not Skin!
Toasted skin syndrome, medically called erythema ab igne, is a skin condition that results from exposure to high heat directly against the skin. It is similar to a scorch mark an iron leaves on clothes when left unattended. For the past several years, dermatologists have reported that the occurrence of these types of heat marks on their patients who use laptop computers have become more common. As a result, more studies by researchers on the condition have been reported in Dermatology journals recently. An offshoot name of toasted skin syndrome, specific to laptop users, was even coined around 2004 – “laptop dermatosis”.
The condition occurs when the heat given off through the ventilation fan area of the computer’s drive system, located usually on the underside of the computer, comes in direct contact with skin. When the computer is placed on the lap, or across the chest as when lying down, the ventilation area is usually completely blocked and the heat is transferred directly into the skin.
However, toasted skin syndrome can develop from other devices that give off heat. Some examples include heating pads and electric blankets left on too long/too hot, heated massage devices that directly transfer heat to skin, or heated car and sports seats. Some jobs result in toasted skin syndrome such as working in front of open, hot stoves all day like bakers do, sitting/standing too close to fires as sometimes outdoor construction workers do, or space heaters under desks in people with desk jobs and cold feet.
Typically, the condition is seen more in chronic use of heated devices against skin, however, it can occur after infrequent use by too close contact near a heat source. Usually, the heat given off needs to be in the 111.2 to 116 degree Fahrenheit range, but older, thinner skin of elderly people can develop the condition at lower temperatures of about 109. Cases of the condition occurring with hot water bottle use have also been seen as well.
The Health Dangers of Toasted Skin Syndrome
A few occurrences of toasted skin syndrome are not dangerous. They are stranger looking than anything else. They can be covered up with make-up until they heal. However, prolonged toasted skin conditions, like chronic sunburning, can lead to permanence of the mottled skin changes with damage to the outer layer of the skin. Like chronically sunburned, or too tanned skin, skin cancers have a greater chance of developing. In fact, dermatology researchers looking at toasted skin syndrome under the microscope have noted that the skin resembles skin with long-term sun exposure.
Recent research also suggests that there may also be a very different health hazard for men who chronically use laptops. One recent study reported that men with high laptop use had elevated scrotum temperatures, which can lead to decreased sperm counts and infertility.
Chronic toasted skin conditions can also serve to warn you that you’re using too high heat with heating pads, electric blankets, massagers, etc. Besides skin toasting, these devices could perhaps start a fire in bed clothes, especially if you fall asleep and don’t turn them off.
How To Avoid/Treat Toasted Skin Syndrome
As I cautioned my business traveler patient, if you want to use your laptop during long plane, or other commuter rides, use the carrying case, or other shielding device, between you and your laptop. Make sure the ventilation area has room to expel the device’s heat without coming in contact with your skin. Most laptop computers come with written cautions on them about skin burns resulting from placing the laptop on exposed skin for long periods of time.
If you use heated car, or sports seats, turn the temperature down. Remember, your body heat is interacting with this heated device and the temperature can become too hot and redden or scorch skin. If you use electric blankets, turn the device on before you get in to warm the bed sufficiently. Then turn the blanket off before you get in to avoid sleeping for long hours with it next to your skin. The same is true for heating pads. Don’t fall asleep with them on. Use them while you’re awake at lower, non-burning temperatures.
Treatment for toasted skin syndrome is fairly simple. Avoid any further exposure of the heat source to the affected area. You may use some pure aloe, or Vitamin E, or walnut oil on the areas to help them heal faster and reduce pigmentation change. Skin should return to its normal condition in a few weeks. If it does not, see a dermatologist.
The world has become much more mobile and most of us wouldn’t be without the use of our laptop computers for work or communication with other people. Many of us also use, or work around, other types of heated devices and have to be aware of how much unprotected skin exposure to heat we actually have. Taking a few precautions to protect your skin will help you avoid the skin damage that toasted skin syndrome can cause.
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Toasted Skin Syndrome, http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20101004/laptop-risk-toasted-skin-syndrome
Heated Seats and Toasted Skin, http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/23/us-beware-reports-idUSTRE81M26P20120223
Laptops Lead to Toasted Skin Syndrome, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39490660/ns/health-health_care/t/laptops-lead-toasted-skin-syndrome/
photo credit: maximumpc.com