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Chemical Burns

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Chemical Burn Overview

Chemical burns can occur in the home, at work, or at school. They can result from an accident or an assault. Although few people in the United States die after contact with chemicals in the home, many substances common in both living and storage areas can do serious harm.

Many chemical burns occur accidentally through misuse of products such as those for hair, skin, and nail care. Although injuries do occur at home, the risk of sustaining a chemical burn is much greater in the workplace, especially in businesses and manufacturing plants that use large quantities of chemicals.

Chemical Burn Causes

Most chemicals that cause burns are either strong acids or bases. A glance at the medical information on the labels of dangerous chemicals confirms the expected toxicity. Common sense precautions and consumer education can reduce your family's risk of injury. A variety of household products fits this description:

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

Chemical Burn Symptoms

All chemical burns should be considered medical emergencies. If you have a chemical burn of the mouth or throat, call 911 and seek immediate medical attention.

Most chemical burns occur on the face, eyes, 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 not readily apparent when you 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 it's swallowed or inhaled
  • Whether or not skin is intact
  • How much of the agent you came into contact
  • Duration of exposure
  • How the chemical works

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 your eyes
  • Cough or shortness of breath

In severe cases, you may develop any of the following:

  • Low blood pressure
  • Faintness, weakness, dizziness
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Severe cough
  • Headache
  • Muscle twitching or seizures
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Cardiac arrest

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

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