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Chemical Pneumonia

Chemical Pneumonia Overview

Chemical pneumonia is an unusual type of lung irritation. Pneumonia usually is caused by a bacteria or virus. In chemical pneumonia, inflammation of lung tissue is from poisons or toxins. Only a small percentage of pneumonias are caused by chemicals.

  • Many substances can cause chemical pneumonia, including liquids, gases, and small particles, such as dust or fumes, also called particulate matter. Some chemicals only harm the lungs; however, some toxic materials affect other organs in addition to the lungs and can result in serious organ damage or death.
  • Aspiration pneumonia is another form of chemical pneumonia. Aspiration means that you breathe oral secretions or stomach contents into your lungs. The inflammation comes from the toxic effects of stomach acid and enzymes on lung tissue. Bacteria from the stomach or mouth can also cause a bacterial pneumonia.
  • Chemical pneumonia is only one type of lung inflammation. You can read about viral pneumonia and bacterial pneumonia in their own sections.

Symptoms of Chemical Pneumonia

Signs and symptoms of chemical pneumonia vary greatly, and many factors can determine its seriousness. For instance, someone exposed to chlorine in a large outdoor pool may have only a cough and burning eyes. Someone else exposed to high levels of chlorine in a small room may die of respiratory failure.

  • Factors that determine the severity of symptoms include the following:
    • Type and strength of chemical
    • Exposure environment -- Indoors, outdoors, hot, cold
    • Length of exposure -- Seconds, minutes, hours
    • Form of chemical -- Gas, vapor, particulate, liquid
    • Protective measures used
    • Prior medical condition
    • Your age
  • Chemical pneumonia may have the following signs and symptoms:
    • Symptoms
      • Burning of the nose, eyes, lips, mouth, and throat
      • Dry cough
      • Wet cough producing clear, yellow, or green mucus
      • Cough producing blood or frothy pink matter in the saliva
      • Nausea or abdominal pain
      • Chest pain
      • Shortness of breath
      • Painful breathing or pleuritis (an inflammation of the outside covering of the lungs)
      • Headache
      • Flu-like symptoms
      • Weakness or a general ill feeling
      • Delirium or disorientation
    • Signs a doctor might observe
      • Rapid or shallow breaths
      • Rapid pulse
      • Oral, nasal, or skin burns
      • Pale skin and lips
      • Sweating
      • Altered thinking and reasoning skills
      • Unconsciousness
      • Swelling of eyes or tongue
      • Hoarse or muffled voice
      • Chemical odors on other areas of the body
      • Frothy spit from a cough
      • Fever

When to Seek Medical Care

Should any symptoms of chemical pneumonia occur, call your doctor or the local poison control center. Any person with serious signs or symptoms should be transported immediately by ambulance to the nearest hospital's emergency department.

Chemical identification is helpful both for the poison control center and the doctor. This should not take precedence over medical care, however, especially for those with severe signs or symptoms.

Immediate evaluation in a hospital's emergency department is necessary for treating the following conditions:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Cyanosis -- A blue discoloration of the mouth or skin
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Sudden change of voice
  • Mouth or throat swelling
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cough productive of frothy or bloody spit
  • Altered thinking and reasoning skills
  • Exposure to potentially deadly chemical
  • Vomiting and aspiration

The poison control center may suggest other conditions particular to the chemical that would need emergency care.

WebMD Medical Reference from eMedicineHealth

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