Laptop Heat May Cause 'Toasted Skin Syndrome'

A review of recent cases concludes with a call for heat shielding and warning labels for laptop computers.
Working with a laptop on one's lap for extended periods of time has been found to cause heat damage and skin discoloration in a handful of cases, prompting researchers examining the phenomenon to recommend thermal protection for laptop users and warnings labels on laptop device packaging.

The incidence of skin damage as a result of laptop use is rare: Only 10 cases have been reported since 2004, according to a report published on Monday in the peer-reviewed medical journal Pediatrics. Nine of those cases involved skin discoloration, known as "Erythema ab Igne"; the tenth case involved an actual burn.

The condition is sometimes called "toasted skin syndrome," and is commonly seen among elderly patients that use heating pads for prolonged periods. The consequences of the condition have a small chance of being serious.

The report, "Laptop Computer–Induced Erythema ab Igne in a Child and Review of the Literature," by Andreas W. Arnold and Peter H. Itin from the Department of Dermatology at University Hospital in Basel, Switzerland, suggests that skin discoloration as a result of prolonged laptop use has the potential to become thermally-induced cancer.

This is not an immediate danger: "The latency of developing malignant tumors seems to be long and extends [up to and beyond] 30 years," the report states. Nonetheless, because such malignancies have a tendency to metastasize, the authors consider the small statistical risk to be "a significant clinical concern."

The report focuses on the case of a 12-year-old boy whose left thigh became discolored after using his laptop to play computer games for prolonged periods over several months. "He recognized that the laptop got hot on the left side; however, regardless of that, he did not change its position," the report says.

A chart of the 10 cases since 2004 does not specify how long laptops were used in patients' laps in five of the cases. Among the five that do specify a usage period, one of the cases cites an indeterminate laptop usage period of "several" hours per day. Two of the cases indicate that laptops were used on the lap for six hours per day. Another case describes laptop usage of six to eight hours per day.

In the case of the 12-year-old boy, laptop usage is listed as one to two hours per day. The report's authors say that this indicates the skin of children is more sensitive to heat than the skin of adults and that parents should keep this in mind when buying laptops for children.

"When using laptop computers on the thighs or knees for a long time, we recommend that heat protection (eg, the laptop’s carrying case) between the body and the computer be used," the authors conclude, noting that they also support recommendations for warning labels on laptop computer packaging.

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