Heating blanket safety

Originally Published: January 31, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: December 21, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I've heard all sorts of bad things about the use of electric heating blankets. I've become quite fond of mine and would like to know if in fact there are any health related concerns I should be aware of.

Thanks,

— Snug as a bug

Dear Snug as a bug,

An electric heating blanket can be a nice, warm comfort during the cold weather months if properly used and maintained. However, there is heated debate regarding electric blanket safety, so your concerns are understandable. The most important factor to consider is whether your blanket has been tested and approved by a nationally recognized third party testing agency that has no stake in the blanket company’s sales. According to the Merceyside Fire and Rescue Service, in a study of 50,000 electrical blankets, approximately 70% failed safety tests, so it’s a good idea to have an expert check your blanket every three years.

There are two types of heating blankets on the market — underblankets (also called heating pads) that are placed directly on the mattress, and overblankets, which are treated like typical blankets you'd snuggle under. When used together, electric under- and over- blankets are a significant fire hazard, so it’s best not to use them simultaneously. Most manufacturers advise against using a heating blanket on waterbeds, sofas, bunk beds, or mechanical beds due to interactions between electric blankets with flammable fabrics and other electrical wiring. It’s a good idea to check your product's information for more details.

Heating blankets that are too hot or kept on one area of the body for too long pose a real threat of burns. This is especially a concern for infants, the elderly, or anyone who might have difficulty feeling hot temperatures or moving quickly if the blanket gets too hot; in fact, seniors are six times more likely to become injured than younger adults. To prevent burns and fire hazards, make sure to turn off your electric blanket before going to sleep, unless it's specially made for all night use or has an automatic timer that shuts the blanket off after a designated period of time or if the blanket reaches a dangerously high temperature. Most new electric blankets have these features. If yours does not, consider replacing it with a newer model — your safety is worth the investment.

Periodically ensuring that your blanket is in good working condition should keep you on the safe side of warm. In addition to following the instructions provided by your blanket’s manufacturer, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Replace worn or cracked heating blankets. Blankets with frayed electric cords should also be replaced. Check that there are no scorch marks or other discolorations on the blanket — they’re indicative of damaged wiring.
  • Make sure all wires and attachments fit snugly and properly. Loose wiring can cause fires.
  • Never use a wet electric heating blanket, and don’t wash electrical blankets that are not approved for machine or hand washing.
  • Replace blankets that contain displaced or damaged embedded heating wires. Check by holding the blanket up to light. You shouldn't see any of the wires touching each other.
  • Replace old blankets. Around 5,000 fires per year are caused by electric heating blankets older than ten years.
  • Don’t fold the blanket when it’s turned on. Doing so can concentrate heat unevenly, increasing the risk of burns. Also, try tying underblankets to your mattress to maintain even heat distribution during use.
  • Don’t lay on top of an overblanket; this can cause electrical wire damage and cause injury.
  • Never dry clean a heating blanket, because the chemicals used in the dry cleaning process can damage heating insulation and increase fire risk.
  • When storing the blanket, roll it up or fold it with as few creases as possible — better yet, hang it up to avoid wire damage.
  • To avoid fire hazards, keep the blanket off when you’re out of the room or not actively using it.

There has been some concern regarding the electromagnetic fields present in electric heating blankets. Some believe exposure to these fields may increase cancer risk, mental health issues, and headaches. Some studies associate the heat emitted by electric blankets with melatonin disruption, which has been linked with breast cancer development. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) regards evidence supporting these links as “highly controversial” because electric blankets present very low exposure levels. However, WHO recommends that pregnant women avoid any risk whatsoever and discontinue heating blanket use while pregnant.

There are many alternatives to heating blankets that can help you stay warm and cozy. Try using flannel sheets or extra blankets, or wear socks to bed. You can also use a hot water bottle to heat up under the sheets. However, if you follow your manufacturer's instructions and the tips above, you should have no problems, except perhaps not wanting to crawl out from underneath the blanket to face the wintry cold.

Alice