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Hydrofluoric acid poisoning

Definition

Hydrofluoric acid is a very strong inorganic acid. This article discusses poisoning from swallowing, breathing in, or touching hydrofluoric acid.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Alternative Names

Fluorhydric acid

Poisonous Ingredient

Hydrofluoric acid

Where Found

This acid is most commonly used for industrial purposes. It is used in:

  • Computer screen manufacturing
  • Fluorescent bulbs
  • Glass etching
  • High-octane gasoline manufacturing
  • Some household rust removers

Note: This list may not be all inclusive.

Symptoms

From swallowing:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Breathing difficulty from throat and mouth swelling and burning
  • Collapse (from low blood pressure or shock)
  • Chest pain
  • Drooling
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Mouth pain
  • Throat pain
  • Vomiting blood

From breathing in (inhaling) the acid:

  • Bluish colored lips and fingernails
  • Chills
  • Choking
  • Coughing
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Tight chest
  • Weakness

If the poison touched your skin or eyes, you may have:

  • Blisters
  • Burns
  • Pain
  • Vision loss

Hydrofluoric acid poisoning can have direct effects on the heart. It can lead to irregular, and sometimes life-threatening, heartbeats.

People who come into contact with this poison are likely to have a combination of the symptoms listed.

Home Care

Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.

If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.

Immediately take the person to the hospital.

Before Calling Emergency

The following information is helpful for emergency assistance:

  • The person's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
  • The time it was swallowed
  • The amount swallowed

However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.

Poison Control

If you suspect possible poisoning, seek emergency medical care immediately.

In the United States, call 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a local poison control center. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Swallowing this acid can cause a severe drop in blood pressure. If the person breathed in fumes from the acid, the health care provider may hear signs of fluid in the lungs when listening to the chest with a stethoscope.

Specific treatment depends on how the poisoning occurred. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate.

If the person swallowed the poison, treatment may include:

  • Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach (endoscopy)
  • Fluids through a vein (IV)
  • Magnesium and calcium solutions to neutralize the acid
  • Medicines to treat symptoms

If the person touched the poison, treatment may include:

  • Magnesium and calcium solutions applied to the skin to neutralize the acid (solutions may also be given through an IV)
  • Monitoring to watch for signs of body-wide poisoning
  • Medicines to treat symptoms
  • Surgical removal of burned skin (debridement)
  • Transfer to a hospital that specializes in burn care
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation), possibly every few hours for several days

If the person breathed in the poison, treatment may include:

  • Airway support, as above
  • Breathing treatments that deliver calcium into the lungs
  • Medicines to treat symptoms

The person may need to be admitted to a hospital to continue treatment. Surgery may be needed if the esophagus, stomach, or intestine have holes (perforations) from the acid.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Hydrofluoric acid is especially dangerous. The most common accidents involving hydrofluoric acid cause severe burns on the skin and hands. The burns may be extremely painful. People will have a lot of scarring and some loss of function in the area involved.

Swallowing this poison can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Extensive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach are possible. Holes (perforations) in the esophagus and stomach may cause serious infections in the chest and abdominal cavities, which may result in death.

References

Chemical Emergencies: Case Definition: Hydrofluoric Acid. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services; 2005.

Goldfrank LR, ed. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2006.

Wax PM, Young A. Caustics. 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 153.

Review Date:1/16/2015
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.

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997-A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.

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