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What to Know About Chlorine

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

Chlorine is a common element in household cleaning and pesticide products. You’re probably most familiar with its use in pools to keep them free from bacteria and algae. However, chlorine is also found in a gas form. Inhaled chlorine gas poses dangerous health risks.

Chlorine in Your Home

You can recognize chlorine by its strong smell that is similar to bleach. It is naturally a gas but can be processed through pressurization and cooling to turn it into a liquid. Whether it's in gas or liquid form, chlorine has a yellow or green tint. As a gas, it is heavier than air so it tends to settle closer to the floor or in low-lying areas.

Chlorine is not flammable itself but is often mixed in with other chemicals like ammonia or turpentine. When mixed with other chemicals, it can have an explosive reaction to fire or extreme heat. In some cases, mixing chlorine with other chemicals causes it to turn back into its gas form and go into the air.

Chlorine is used in drinking water in very small doses to kill bacteria. With proper use and handling, it is safe to be around. Still, you should always keep it and other chemicals away from children.

Chlorine poses a danger in your home when you mix a chlorine-based cleaner with another cleaner. The varying chemicals may react, and release chlorine gas into the air of your home. This exposes your skin, eyes, and lungs to potential damage. You can also be exposed if you eat something that's been contaminated if chlorine gets into a water or food source.

Signs of Chlorine Poisoning

The severity of symptoms from chlorine poisoning depends on the amount of chlorine you were exposed to. Minor exposure to chlorine may mean fewer or less severe symptoms. Significant exposure can lead to serious health consequences and even death.

Factors that affect the severity of chlorine exposure include:

  • Amount of chlorine
  • Length of time you were exposed
  • How you were exposed‌
  • Where the gas or liquid came in contact with your body (eyes, skin, mouth, lungs)

You may have symptoms immediately, or they may appear a while after exposure.

Some symptoms to look out for include: 

  • Blurry vision 
  • Red, irritated, watery eyes 
  • Pain, irritation, redness, and blisters where chlorine touched your skin
  • Burning in your nose, throat, chest, and eyes
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Not being able to breathe normally 
  • Feeling nauseous‌
  • Vomiting 

Keep in mind that these symptoms may also appear if you are exposed to other chemicals. If you know what brand of cleaner or pesticide you were exposed to, share that with your doctor when you seek medical attention.

If your chlorine exposure symptoms aren’t treated, you may have long-term side effects. If you have severe effects like fluid in your lungs, you’re more likely to develop long-term health conditions.

Diagnosis. When your doctor examines you for signs of chlorine poisoning, they look for:

  • Fast breathing
  • Blue skin
  • Rapid heartbeat 
  • Wheezing
  • Your stomach sinking in under your ribs when breathing 
  • Nasal flaring when breathing
  • High pitched sound when breathing
  • Hemorrhage (outflow of blood) in your respiratory tract
  • Runny nose
  • Excessive salivation 
  • Damage to your tooth enamel ‌
  • Signs of chemical burns around your nostrils from breathing in the chlorine

Treating Chlorine Poisoning

The first step to treat chlorine poisoning is to get away from where you were exposed. If it happened indoors, go outside. If it happened outside, walk away from the area. Your goal is to get fresh air into your lungs and lessen the amount of chlorine in your system.

Don’t attempt to clean up the chlorine because this lengthens your exposure time. Instead, warn medical personnel or local authorities so it can be cleaned properly. If others are nearby, warn them about the chlorine so no one else is harmed.

If there's a chance chlorine is on your clothes, take them off immediately. If possible, pull them down your body or cut them off to avoid further skin or soft-tissue exposure. Avoid touching contaminated areas, including surfaces you or your clothes touched.

You also want to wash your body as quickly as possible to remove any chlorine from your skin. You don’t need anything special to remove chlorine — soap and warm water work well. If your eyes are burning or your vision is blurry, rinse your eyes with clean, running water for at least ten minutes. If you wear glasses or contacts, remove them and set them aside with your clothes.

If you ingest chlorine orally, don’t attempt to flush your system. Instead, seek immediate medical attention. There is not an anecdote that your doctor can give you, but they work to remove it from your system. Your doctor will also treat your symptoms to lessen pain and allow your body to heal from the damage.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

CDC Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Emergency Preparedness and Response: Facts about Chlorine.”

Medscape: “Chlorine Toxicity.”

Merriam-Webster: "hemorrhage."

New York State Department of Health: “The Facts About Chlorine.”

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