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Electric Blankets Are Cozy, But Are They Safe?

A look at the health concerns, plus how to avoid burns and fires

Woman sleeping in bed

On a chilly winter night, climbing into a warm, cozy bed is like heaven on earth. One efficient way to quickly warm things up under the sheets is an electric blanket. Some people say using one also saves on heating costs since the house thermostat can be turned down.

Burns and fires are a risk, though today’s blankets are much safer than their early predecessors. Since the late 1980s, electric bedding in the U.S. has been designed to emit much less heat (older models put out higher wattages and contributed to household fires and other problems). Electric blankets also have many built-in safety features. The most advanced models are programmable to pre-warm a bed at a certain time and shut off a little later. Sophisticated temperature controls can sense changes in the skin and air temperature, adjust settings accordingly and even alert you to a malfunction.

Nevertheless, there have been lawsuits claiming faulty design features contributed to short circuits that started fires. A good way to find out if your blanket is safe is to see it's been recalled. The Consumer Product Safety Council has recalled many electric blankets from various manufactures after several cases of minor burns.

It's also important to use your blanket wisely by following these tips.

How to use an electrical blanket safely
  1. Use the blanket to heat up the bed — then turn it off before you go to sleep. This tip comes from Derek E. Bell, MD, assistant professor of surgery and burn director at the Kessler Burn Center at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. “Turn the blanket on about half an hour before you’re planning to retire for the night and switch it off before you climb into bed,” he says. “That way your bed will be warm and hopefully you’ll fall asleep by the time the blanket turns cold again.”
  2. Keep your blanket in good condition. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for proper cleaning and storage. Check for worn areas, loose plugs or other damage like cracks and breaks in the wiring, plugs and connectors, advises the Maine State Fire Marshal, and look for charred spots on both sides. Throw out any blanket that shows signs of damage. And keep your pets away from your blankets. They can nibble the wires, which can create a shock or fire hazard.
  3. Use it smartly. Never fold an electric blanket when using it — the wires inside the blanket can become damaged, causing the blanket to overheat and maybe even spark. Don’t put bedding or anything else on top of an electric blanket when you're using it, and never use it along with a heating pad, since heat can become trapped in the bedding layers and cause burns. Never use electric blankets on sofa beds, pullout beds or mechanically adjustable beds as the heater or control wires could become pinched or frayed. When you're done using the blanket, turn it off and unplug it.
  4. Store it right. Store the electric blanket by rolling, not folding, it.
  5. Use care with cords. Never run electrical cords under rugs or fasten them to walls with staples, pins or other fasteners as this may damage the protective covering and expose the wiring (a fire hazard.) Never route electrical cords between the mattress and box spring or allow the cord to be pinched by bed frames, walls, bed slats or footboards.
  6. Buy an approved product. Only use blankets that have been approved by nationally recognized testing agencies, such as UL. UL develops product safety standards for a large range of products and performs independent tests based on these standards. The logo means a representative sample of the blankets has been tested for safety. Never buy an electric blanket from a secondhand shop or garage sale.
Avoiding burns

As with any electrical appliance, malfunctions can and do happen with electric blankets. Falling asleep on a bunched-up blanket is a common cause of burns, according to Bell, a plastic surgeon who treats many burn patients. He explains that when a hot blanket rests on the same body part for an extended period, the skin can burn. “These burn accidents usually happen because someone has fallen asleep on a bunched-up area of the blanket,” he says.

Experts say people with diabetes are more vulnerable to burns from electric blankets because their condition makes them less sensitive to heat. “Electric blankets are also not recommended for infants, young children or anyone who is paralyzed or incapable of understanding how to safely operate them,” says Bell.

Finally, people with urinary incontinence should not use electric blankets; wetness and electricity don't mix.