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Chemical burn or reaction

Definition

Chemicals that touch skin can lead to a reaction on the skin, throughout the body, or both.

Alternative Names

Burn from chemicals

Considerations

Chemical exposure is not always obvious. You should suspect chemical exposure if an otherwise healthy person becomes ill for no apparent reason, particularly if an empty chemical container is found nearby.

Exposure to chemicals at work over a long period of time can cause changing symptoms as the chemical builds up in the person's body.

If the person has a chemical in the eyes, see first aid for eye emergencies.

If the person has swallowed or inhaled a dangerous chemical, call a local poison control at 1-800-222-1222.

Symptoms

Depending on the type of exposure, the symptoms may include:

First Aid

  • Make sure the cause of the burn has been removed. Try not to come in contact with it yourself. If the chemical is dry, brush off any excess. Avoid brushing it into your eyes. Remove any contaminated clothing or jewelry.
  • Flush the chemicals off the skin surface using cool running water for 15 minutes or more.
  • Treat the person for shock if he or she appears faint, pale, or if there is shallow, rapid breathing.
  • Apply cool, wet compresses to relieve pain.
  • Wrap the burned area with a dry sterile dressing (if possible) or clean cloth. Protect the burned area from pressure and friction.
  • Minor chemical burns will generally heal without further treatment. However, if there is a second or third degree burn or if there is an overall body reaction, get medical help right away. In severe cases, don't leave the person alone and watch carefully for reactions affecting the entire body.

Note: If a chemical gets into the eyes, the eyes should be flushed with water right away. Continue to flush the eyes with running water for at least 15 minutes. Get medical help right away.

Do Not

  • DO NOT apply any household remedy such as ointment or salve to a chemical burn.
  • DO NOT become contaminated by the chemical as you give first aid.
  • DO NOT disturb a blister or remove dead skin from a chemical burn.
  • DO NOT try to neutralize any chemical without consulting the Poison Control Center or a doctor.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for medical help right away if the person is having difficulty breathing, is having seizures, or is unconscious.

Prevention

  • All chemicals should be stored out of the reach of young children -- preferably in a locked cabinet.
  • Avoid mixing different products that contain toxic chemicals such as ammonia and bleach. The mixture can give off hazardous fumes.
  • Avoid prolonged (even low-level) exposure to chemicals.
  • Avoid using potentially toxic substances in the kitchen or around food.
  • Buy potentially poisonous substance in safety containers, and buy only as much as needed.
  • Many household products are made of toxic chemicals. It is important to read and follow label instructions, including any precautions.
  • Never store household products in food or drink containers. Leave them in their original containers with the labels intact.
  • Safely store chemicals immediately after use.
  • Use paints, petroleum products, ammonia, bleach, and other products that give off fumes only in a well-ventilated area.

References

Harchelroad FP, Rottinghaus DM. Chemical burns. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 200.

Levine MD, Zane R. Chemical injuries In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 64. 

Review Date:1/12/2015
Reviewed By:Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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