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Sodium Nitrite Toxicity

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO

Sodium nitrite is a yellowish-white, odorless powder. You may notice that a small amount of it is in certain foods. But if you consume too much of it, it can be deadly. Unfortunately, in the last few years, experts have seen more people consume sodium nitrite on purpose as a method of suicide. This is especially true with young adults.

What Is Sodium Nitrite Used For?

You’ll see sodium nitrite in some cured meats to help them last longer. You might also notice it used for:

  • A preservative in fish
  • Animal control purposes
  • Car maintenance
  • Metal treatment and finishing
  • Treatment in some cases of cyanide poisoning
  • Certain medications

But since this product is so easy to get your hands on, some online suicide forums detail how to use it for harmful purposes. Many poison control centers have records that show people searched for and bought sodium nitrite online to kill themselves.

What Causes Sodium Nitrite Toxicity?

The amount of sodium nitrite that’s considered toxic is different for each person.

It’s rare that someone will swallow sodium nitrite by mistake. Most of the time, poisonings from this substance are on purpose.

High levels of it can lower the ability for your red blood cells to move oxygen. Doctors refer to this harmful condition as methemoglobinemia. This can affect your ability to breathe, which can cause you to collapse. Very high levels of sodium nitrite can kill you.

Sodium nitrite can also harm you if you inhale it or if it’s soaked up through your skin. It can irritate your eyes, skin, nose, and throat.

What Are the Symptoms of Sodium Nitrite Toxicity?

It’s important to know about the signs of sodium nitrite poisoning. If you think someone took it, look for the symptoms of methemoglobinemia. These include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • A blue color on the skin and lips

Sodium nitrite poisoning can also cause diarrhea and pain in your belly. Call 911 if you suspect someone has taken sodium nitrite.

What Are Safety Measures for Sodium Nitrite?

There aren’t any workplace guidelines to limit people’s exposure to sodium nitrite. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a health risk. If you work in an area that could expose you to sodium nitrite, it’s important to follow any rules your employer sets out.

Since sodium nitrite can be soaked up through your skin, it’s important to be aware of this if you work around it.

If you get sodium nitrite in your eyes, flush them out with a lot of water right away. Do this for at least 15 minutes. Lift your upper and lower eyelids to clean them completely. If you have contacts, take them out before you rinse your eyes. Get medical help right away.

If sodium nitrite gets on your skin or clothing, take off your clothing right away. Wash your skin as soon as possible with water. Call poison control for further advice.

In cases where sodium nitrite is inhaled, it’s important that you take the person away from the substance right away. Call 911 immediately and follow their instructions.

What Are the Warning Signs of Suicide?

Since sodium nitrite poisoning is usually on purpose, suicide prevention should be the first step.

The warning signs before a suicide attempt aren’t always clear. But you can still look out for certain behaviors. Take note if someone:

  • Talks about wanting to kill themselves or die
  • Talks about being hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Wants to buy a gun or looks for other ways to kill themselves online
  • Talks about being a burden to other people
  • Feels trapped or is in extreme pain
  • Uses more drugs or alcohol
  • Acts anxious, bothered, or becomes reckless
  • Sleeps too much or too little
  • Takes themselves out of social situations or isolates
  • Shows a lot of rage or talk about seeking revenge
  • Has severe mood swings

If you think that a loved one may be thinking about suicide, it’s important to be there for them.

Offer a judgment-free ear to listen. Show them that you care and hear them out. If they’re in a tough situation, stay with them. Keep them in a private, safe place and care for them until they’re able to get proper help. You can call the suicide prevention hotline at 988 or 911.

It’s also smart to take away anything they could use to hurt or kill themselves.

If they are a danger to themselves, call 911, don’t wait.

If you think that someone poisoned themselves with sodium nitrite, call 911 right away. After you do this, call poison control to get tips to help the person while emergency services get to you.

How Do Doctors Treat Sodium Nitrite Toxicity?

If someone ingests sodium nitrite, an emergency medical team will attempt to keep them alive through certain life-saving treatments like oxygen treatment.

Your chance of survival depends on how much sodium nitrite you consumed. About 15% of self-poisoning cases with nitrites have led to deaths since 2018. Of those who used the substance, 88% of them needed help from medical facilities.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Missouri Poison Center: “Sodium Nitrite Suicide: Frightening Trend In Young Adults.”

New Jersey Department of Health: “Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet.”

Medicine: “Suicide attempt using sodium nitrite ordered on the internet: Two case reports.”

Case Reports in Emergency Medicine: “Severe Methemoglobinemia due to Sodium Nitrite Poisoning.”

 

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