Experts generally divide heated blankets into two types: One goes under the blankets and can be placed next to the fitted sheet or mattress; this type is called an under-blanket or heating pad.
The other serves as a heating blanket and goes over the entire bed including your body (and sheet, if you use one) rather than next to the mattress, so these are dubbed electric blankets or over-blankets.
A newer, properly maintained electric blanket or heating pad, when used as instructed for a healthy adult, is highly safe. In certain populations (e.g., children under 13, the elderly, people with diabetes, or those who are unable to detect heat levels) both pads and electric blankets are riskier, and so, are recommended for limited closely supervised use.
If you do not fall into an at-risk population such as a person undergoing kidney dialysis with decreased sensation (Source) and use a well-maintained blanket or pad under 10 years old, it can not only keep you warm, but it can be used in conjunction with the thermostat to lower energy bills.
Today there are electric blankets of virtually every bed size and material, with bells and whistles such as dual controls for couples who need different temperatures, so if you haven’t tried a heating blanket lately (heating pads have somewhat less variation), you might like to after doing some personal safety assessments.
If you are in the market for a safe alternative to an electric blanket you have now, or are looking to buy your first electric blanket with safety in mind, I personally recommend this one!
It has all the safety considerations mentioned in this article(e.g., auto-shutoff, safe temperature settings, machine washable, and just overall comfortable) & I have loved using it over the past year. When friends ask me which one to buy I always tell them this one!
Health & Safety of Electric Blankets and Heating Pads
Electric blankets and heating pads cause almost 500 fires each year, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International, or ESFI (Source).
Almost all of these fires, some 99%, are believed to involve electric blankets that are more than ten years old, per the City of New York Fire Department (Source).
Maureen Vogel, spokesperson for the National Safety Counsel, advises that, “First, always check to make sure your product does not have an open recall.
Checking recall status is one of the single most important things consumers can do when deciding to purchase new items” (Source).
Although the risk of fires caused by electric blankets or under-blanket heating pads is small compared with other fire causes, it is best to be cautious and read all product inserts or the manufacturer’s instructions on the Internet.
Also, experts advise the following do’s and don’ts for your electric blanket or heating pad (not a comprehensive list of every risk).
|Do seek out electric blankets safety-tested and OK’d by independent agencies such as the Underwriters Laboratories (UL), with the UL certification mark.||Don’t ball up, fold, or tuck in the blanket when it’s on.|
|Do check for product recalls prior to buying/use.||Don’t place on waterbeds, sofas, bunk beds, wet sheets, or mechanical beds—per most manufacturers’ recommendations—due to wiring and flammable fabric combinations or electrical injury risk (Source).|
|Do periodically check for exposed wires, tears, burn marks (dark patches), or other problems. |
“Replace blankets that contain displaced or damaged embedded heating wires. Check by holding the blanket up to light.” (Source)
|Don’t use heating blanket or pad for children 5 and under (consult a pediatrician for specifics); those with mobility issues; diabetics or people who cannot sense heat levels, including some elderly persons; and with pets who are capable of scratching or biting cords or other components.|
|Do make sure the blanket or heating pad’s cords do not pose tripping hazards.||Don’t put items, including comforters or your body weight, on top of a heated pad or an electric blanket because of the potential for wire damage and possible electrical injury and/or burns (Source and Source).|
|Do follow manufacturer’s instructions with regard to how to clean the pad or electric blanket.||Don’t leave the blanket or heating pad on while you’re out of the room for long periods. Some experts recommend that pads or blankets not be used for a full overnight sleep period of 7 to 8 hours, unless it is specifically tested/rated for overnight use (Source) (Source) (Source).|
Burn and Heat Stroke Risk
Burns and overheating (to the point of classic heat stroke) are two potential risks of prolonged incorrect use of electric blankets and heating pads.
Thank goodness it is not a common occurrence, but two known deaths attributed to prolonged overnight electric blanket use are referred to in the medical literature.
In a 2006 forensic pathology article, two case reports describe the winter-time overheating fatalities of a 13-year-old girl with no known comorbidities and a “well-developed and obese” 41-year-old male.
The male’s wife also was found unconscious, but she survived; likewise, the 13-year-old’s female cousin, who shared the bed, was delirious and burned but she survived (Source).
In those two unfortunate deaths, the pathologists believed that, “The possible explanation why the victims were unable to wake up is that they lost consciousness rapidly once their body temperature rose to the critical point.”
Electrical injury was not implicated in either of those deaths or the survivors’ injuries.
The pathologists noted that risk factors for heat stroke include “extreme ages (<5 years, >65 years), cardiovascular disease, dehydration, alcoholism, obesity, skin-altering conditions (psoriasis, eczema, burns), lack of air conditioning in home, low socio-economic status, living in a multistory building, occupations with prolonged exertion and environment exposure to temperature extremes, certain medications/drugs,” etc.
With respect to burning via heating pads or electric blankets, it is safest to choose a model with automatic shut-off or timers and not use them all night long.
Alternatively, they may be used to heat up the bed for an hour or half-hour before sleeping then shut off.
Brad Wiggins, a nurse manager at University of Utah Health Burn Center, noted risk factors for burns from heating pads (or electric blankets):
- Age: Infants or geriatric populations
- Medical conditions: People with paralysis or a movement disability
- Medical conditions: Those with decreased sensation or neuropathies.
Wiggins said that “a heating pad will only get to about 120 degrees, at the most, when it’s kind of in a confined space, but I think the danger of that is that people don’t realize that leaving it in the same place, falling asleep on it, putting it on a patient who . . . has some neuropathies . . . it’ll actually cause a second-degree burn over just a few hours of time of exposure” (Source).
Also, in those with reduced circulation, including the disabled, those with diabetes, and the elderly, Wiggins noted, “they don’t have the good circulation that they need to heal that injury, so it actually ends up being a deeper second- to a third-degree burn and lends itself to needing to have a skin graft, which lends itself to a hospital stay within our intensive care unit, and really longer outcomes.”
All the experts agree that home electric blankets and heating pads should not be used in infants and children under age 5 due to the risks of burns, heat stroke, or electrical injury.
Consult a pediatrician to find out if they recommend limited (short), supervised use of heating pads for older children.
Safe Heat Use During Pregnancy
For pregnant women, the recommendation is generally for short-term (15 minutes and under) targeted use of heating pads (not electric blankets) and using a towel to wrap the pad and keep it from directly touching the abdomen. “As I tell my patients, you won’t cook the baby,” according to Shawna Pochan, CNM, MPH, nurse-midwife at Massachusetts General Hospital (Source).
But do keep the pad’s temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And “Don’t fall asleep with it on and make sure the wiring is safe,” Pochan said.
It is possible, but highly unlikely, to be electrocuted by a heating pad or electric blanket that is under 10 years old, well-maintained, and used according to manufacturer’s instructions (e.g., not dry-cleaned, not used with wet blankets or sheets, not chewed on by pet).
Nevertheless, the experts recommend you take the following precautions to be as safe as possible (some of these are seen on the do’s and don’ts table earlier):
- Do not dry-clean, machine-wash, or otherwise dampen your electric blanket, pad, pillow, or sheets unless the manufacturers’ instructions or safety ratings indicate it is okay to do so.
- Do not use with pets or people who wet the bed, as there is a small risk of electrocution with both pets’ teeth/claws and wetness.
- Throw out blankets or pads over 10 years old, even if they look good. Do not buy them second-hand if you can help it.
- Do not overload the electrical circuitry used by a blanket or pad.
- Do not bunch, roll up, or tuck in the pads or blankets during use or storage, because this can cause burns from electrical concentration in one area. It can also damage or expose wiring. For storing, they can be loosely rolled or, better yet, hung up to avoid electrical issues.
Electromagnetic Fields (EMFs)
It would be impossible in this short article to cover all the divergent data about electromagnetic fields and whether they enhance cancer incidence, whether they are more harmful to certain populations such as pregnant women, or whether steady, low doses over longer periods cause significant, observable adverse health effects.
That said, here are a few key points to remember:
- Electric blankets do not pose any ionizing radiation risk. Ionizing radiation is the most problematic type with regard to causing adverse health outcomes demonstrable in reproducible, peer-reviewed studies of high patient populations.
- Very high-energy or high-frequency (ionizing) radiation includes x-rays and gamma rays, per the American Cancer Society (Source).
- Electric blankets (and cell phones, microwaves, industrial food processing, police radar, clothes dryers, walkie-talkies) create only very low frequency (VLF) or extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation that is non-ionizing. “Non-ionizing radiation has enough energy to move atoms around or make them vibrate, but not enough to directly damage DNA” (American Cancer Society).
- Radiation-emitting products are regulated in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (Source).
- “Everyone is exposed to a complex mix of weak electric and magnetic fields, both at home and at work, from the generation and transmission of electricity, domestic appliances and industrial equipment, to telecommunications and broadcasting” (World Health Organization).
- “To date, no adverse health effects from low-level [as seen with electric blankets or cell phones], long-term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area” (WHO).
FAQs on Electric Blanket/Heating Pad Use
Are Electric Blankets Bad for Your Kidneys?
This question is difficult to answer without context.
In and of itself, a new, properly maintained, and correctly used electric blanket or heating pad should not cause kidney damage, especially when used, as many experts recommend, for short intervals in a healthy adult.
High temperatures, however, can damage the kidneys, among other systems. “Body temperatures in excess of 104 degrees Fahrenheit will cause significant problems for the kidneys. Dehydration will lead to low blood pressure and decreased kidney function. . . .There is breakdown of muscle tissue that results in kidney failure. Finally, heart failure and shock can lead to kidney failure during episodes of severe heat stroke” [as can be seen with inadvertent heating pad or electric blanket misuse] (Source).
Hark back to the earlier discussion of heat stroke, wherein two people died owing to incorrect use of electric blankets.
As another study puts it, “Heat stroke emerges as a result of exposure to high temperature [and] is a disturbance characterized by tachycardia, tachypnea, normal or low blood pressure and elevation of body temperature . . . and can result [in] complications including renal failure, liver failure, [and] respiratory distress syndrome. . . “
If heating pads/blankets are used, great care should be taken in certain populations (e.g., the elderly, diabetics, those with neurologic or movement disorders) so that overheating, electrical injury, or burns do not occur, which could affect many bodily systems and organs such as the skin and heart, not just the kidneys.
Can Electric Blankets Cause Joint Pain?
Au contraire! Strategic use of electric blankets and heating pads—after consulting one’s medical provider to see if insomnia, arthritis, pregnancy, fibromyalgia, or other conditions are present and require medical intervention—can help relieve joint stiffness and pain.
Dr. Adam Gunasekara (aka Doctor Arthritis), recommends turning down the thermostat in your home for optimum cool sleep, “But because cold doesn’t do our joints any favors, make sure you use an electric blanket or place heating pads in areas where you wake up with most pain, like your hands, neck, or knees” (Source).
In addition, the Arthritis Foundation concurs that heat helps: “Along with a warm shower, snuggling with an electric blanket can provide joint pain relief. Find one with a timer to turn down heat as you sleep and to turn back up as you are waking up” (Source).
How do heating pads applied to a pain point work?
“When you warm up a sore joint or tired muscle, your blood vessels get bigger. This allows more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to be delivered to the injured tissues. Better circulation means more relaxation for those stiff muscles and joints” (Source).
Can Heat Pads or Blankets Affect Male Fertility?
Anything that raises core body temperature has the potential to initiate biological changes. Sometimes these changes can result in adverse health issues.
For this reason, at least one urologist with male clientele advises that, because heat can negatively affect sperm count, “. . . men with fertility issues should avoid hot tubs, steam rooms, saunas, and electric blankets” (Source).
Can I Put a Comforter on Top of My Electric Blanket?
The simple answer is no, it is not advisable. Electric blankets—recall that they are dubbed over-blankets, too—are designed to be on top of you, the sheets, and any duvets or comforters/quilts.
“When covered by anything, including other blankets or pets, electric blankets may overheat” (Source).
Likewise, they may cause you to overheat.
It can also be helpful to consult the manufacturer’s instructions for your heating pad or electric blanket and to follow them.
We suggest you err on the side of caution and use your so-called over-blanket or top heating blanket as the topmost layer of your bedding.
In the case of heating pads, do not lie on the pad, but, rather, use it on top of the area you would like to heat (e.g., shoulder or lower back) and heed the aforementioned cautions.
Wirecutter says, “A quality electric heating pad is safety-certified, quickly reaches and maintains desired temperatures, and is equipped with an auto-shutoff function as well as being machine-washable” (Source).
For safety, you can also choose to use the pad or electric blanket only when you are awake, use it with a timer or auto shutoff, or use it to preheat the bed prior to lying down and shutting it off when you get into bed.
How Long Can You Leave an Electric Blanket On?
Simply put, some say never use an eletric blanket all night. Other sources say do not use unless it is rated for overnight use.
In general, it is best to heed the manufacturer’s instructions—especially if your pad or blanket has passed safety testing—with regard to how long to keep it on.
If you’re as risk-averse as I am, then you might want to use the pad or blanket only to heat the painful area for a half-hour or less at a time or to preheat the bed.
According to Mr. Electric, “Don’t use an electric blanket all night unless it is specifically rated for safe overnight use” (Source).
“One of the most common questions about electric blankets is whether it’s safe to leave them on overnight. While a modern, well-maintained electric blanket is unlikely to cause problems with proper use, it is not recommended to keep electric blankets on all night” (Source).
Again, take the manufacturer’s instructions, coupled with all this safety advice, and weigh it against your risk factors (if you have any) and preferences.
Just be sure never to leave the blanket or pad on unattended (e.g., if you leave the house or if children or pets are present).
Are Heating Pads/Blankets Safe for Pets?
Unless your pet dog or cat is ill, elderly, or just came out of surgery and is shivering, they “can thermoregulate on their own,” says Dr. Charlotte Thompson, associate veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital. “You just have to give them the ability to choose where they want to be” (Pet MD).
Associate veterinarian Dr. Malora Roberts says that anything electrical can be a risk to pets, citing kittens who play with cords and puppies who chew, as well as cats who knead (aka “making biscuits”), which can lead to tears in the protective lining of a heating pad and poses a shock risk (Pet MD).
According to VRCC Veterinary Specialty & Emergency Hospital, “If your pet has just had surgery, or ‘Lucky’ comes in from playing in the snow and can’t seem to get warm, you may be tempted to place him or her on your cozy electric heating pad for some extra warmth.
Unfortunately, heating pads are notorious for large fluctuations in temperature and even though your cat or dog may seem very fluffy, the heating pad can actually cause serious hot spots or burns to your pet’s skin” (Source).
Pet-specific Alternatives to Heating Pads/Blankets
- Hot-water bottles
- Heated pet beds (puppies will need to be supervised closely even with these). Some require electrical outlets; others are wireless. Some are designed for the indoors and others for the outdoors. Dr. Jerry Klein advises, “When buying a heated bed, make sure it has a chew-resistant cord and a removable bed cover to wash easily when needed” (Source). One well-liked non-electrical pet bed is the Furhaven ThermaNAP Self-Warming Pet Bed Pad with “a reflective thermal sheet nestled between layers of polyester fiber batting core for enhanced insulation,” which comes in sizes for cats up through larger dogs in “jumbo plus” size.
- DESIGNED FOR PETS: A safe, electricity-free solution to keeping pets warm and toasty; the bed mat is equipped with a layer of insulating fiber batting and mylar, which reflects body heat to create a...
- Heated discs that can be microwaved and placed under a pet’s bedding or come with a fleece or other washable covering. Snuggle Safe offers a highly rated microwaveable, fleece-covered bed warmer of this type.
- PERFECT FOR TRAVEL AND COMES WITH FLEECE COVER: Lightweight and compact design that makes it a perfect travel companion, made even better with fleece covers.
- Nonshreddable blankets (e.g., microfiber, fleece), without tassels, knitting, or big holes. PetFusion has a reversible microplush blanket that some dogs seem to enjoy.
- ULTRA SOFT & COZY: (I) 100% polyester Micro Plush blanket is great for puppies & kittens! (II) Environmentally safe small dog blanket suited for all 4 seasons. (III) Calming dog blanket provides your...
- Pet-specific heated blankets. Furhaven also lists a self-warming throw blanket for dogs and cats.
- DESIGNED FOR PETS: A safe, electricity-free solution to keeping pets warm and toasty; the thermal blanket is equipped with a layer of mylar material that reflects body heat to create a warm sleep...
- Keeping your pet indoors, especially during cold or inclement weather.
Like any electrical device, an electric blanket or heating pad carries some risks: Namely, contact burns and injuries due to electrical sparks/shorts causing fires.
These two risks go up in some populations who may be unable to tell if burns are occurring and move away to avoid injury, such as children/infants, the elderly, and those with mobility issues or diabetes.
Although the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from electric blankets are weak, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that more extensive tests on long-term low-level exposure are ongoing.
If you do not fall into an at-risk population and have a well-maintained blanket, it can not only keep you warm, but it can be used in conjunction with the thermostat to lower energy bills by at least a little.
I personally am cautious in matters of health and safety, so I do not use my heating pad all night.
It has an auto shut-off or I use it for short intervals to address pain.
You will have to weigh your risk factors and preferences along with all the information presented here, as well as the manufacturer’s safety sheets, to decide how best to use your electric blanket or pad.
Meanwhile, we at Sleep Flawless wish you sweet dreams!