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Symptoms and Signs of Chemical Burns

Doctor's Notes on Chemical Burns

A chemical burn is damage or injury to tissue caused by direct contact with a toxic chemical or its fumes. Although many different chemicals can cause injury, chemical burns are most commonly caused by strong acids or strong basis. Examples of chemicals that can cause chemical burns in the home include pool chlorinators, bleach, metal cleaners, and drain or toilet cleaners.

Signs and symptoms of a chemical burn are related to the extent and site of the burn on the body and the substance causing the burn. Typical symptoms are irritation, redness, and burning pain at the injured site. Blisters may form on the skin. Other associated signs and symptoms depend on the site of the burn and can include vision loss if the eye is involved, numbness, and the presence of black, necrotic (dead) skin.

Medical Author:
Medically Reviewed on 3/11/2019

Chemical Burns Symptoms

All chemical burns should be considered potential medical emergencies.

Most chemical burns occur on the face, eyes, hands, arms, and legs. Usually a chemical burn will be relatively small and will require only outpatient treatment. Chemical burns can be deceiving, however. Some agents can cause deep tissue damage that is not readily apparent when people first look at it.

  • Tissue damage from chemical burns depends on several factors.
    • The strength or concentration of the agent
    • The site of contact (eye, skin, mucous membrane)
    • Whether swallowed or inhaled
    • Whether or not skin is intact
    • With the quantity of the chemical
    • The duration of exposure
    • How the chemical works
    • The length of time to washing (decontamination)
  • Signs and symptoms of chemical burns include the following:
    • Redness, irritation, or burning at the site of contact
    • Pain or numbness at the site of contact
    • Formation of blisters or black dead skin at the contact site
    • Vision changes if the chemical gets into the eyes
    • Cough or shortness of breath
    • Vomiting
  • In severe cases, a person may develop any of the following symptoms:

Chemical burns can be very unpredictable. Death from a chemical injury, although rare, can occur.

Chemical Burns Causes

Most chemicals that cause burns are either strong acids or bases. A glance at the medical information on the labels of dangerous chemicals usually confirms the expected toxicity. Common sense precautions and consumer education can reduce the risk of injury. A variety of common household products that may cause chemical burns are as follows:

  • Bleach
  • Concrete mix
  • Drain or toilet bowl cleaners
  • Metal cleaners
  • Pool chlorinators

This is just a sample list. Many other products used in the home and at work may contain some amount of chemicals that may cause burns. It is important to keep the labels on the containers in case of an exposure so the medical personnel can know what the patient has been exposed to.

All of these should only be stored in the appropriate containers to prevent accidental ingestion.

REFERENCE:

Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

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