A chemical wound, also called a chemical burn, is damage to the body from a caustic chemical, which is a very strong acid or base that can burn or corrode. Contact with these chemicals can damage the skin, eyes, lungs (if breathed), or, if swallowed, the inside of the body. It is important to take care of these wounds correctly so you don’t make them worse and you can help them heal.
You may have some caustic chemicals at home. It is important to be safe with them and keep them away from children. See Causes.
The symptoms of a chemical wound depend on what part of the body is injured.
- Skin. A mild burn on the skin (a first-degree burn) will be red, swollen, and painful. A second-degree burn can cause blisters or make the skin look shiny. With a third-degree burn or worse, the skin might look rough and white, yellow, or charred black. If the burn is bad, the person may be numb and not feel pain because the nerves are damaged.
- Eyes. If a caustic chemical gets in the eyes, the person will not be able to see normally and will have pain.
- Lungs. Someone who breathes a caustic chemical will cough and may have trouble breathing.
- Mouth and stomach. Someone who eats or drinks a caustic chemical will have pain in the throat and stomach. The person may have nausea and may vomit the chemical back up, which can burn the throat and mouth again.
A person who has had a long exposure to a large amount of the chemical will have worse symptoms than someone who had a brief exposure to a small amount of the chemical.
Call the doctor after you do immediate first aid on the burn, or call 911 right away for serious burns and poisoning. Call poison control or your doctor for help with giving first aid, especially if the chemical was swallowed.
Chemical wounds can be serious. Call 911 right away if you think it might be an emergency, especially if you see any of these symptoms:
- Weakness, dizziness, or fainting
- Twitching or seizure
- Trouble breathing
- Heart attack
Chemicals wounds are caused by caustic chemicals, which are strong acids or bases that can corrode or burn. Here are some household items that often contain caustic chemicals:
- Bleach (sodium hypochlorite)
- Paint thinner (sodium hydroxide/lye)
- Drain cleaner (sodium hydroxide/lye)
- Metal cleaners and rust removers (hydrofluoric acid)
- Oven cleaner (sodium hydroxide/lye)
- Toilet bowl cleaners (hydrochloric acid or muriatic acid)
- Dishwasher detergents and some laundry pod detergents (sodium hydroxide/lye)
- Swimming pool chemicals (sodium hydroxide/lye; sodium hypochlorite)
- Battery acid
Your doctor will usually diagnose a chemical burn based on your description of what happened and by looking at the burn. Tell the doctor what chemical caused the burn, if you know. If you don’t know what type of chemical it was (if it was not in its original container), the doctor may do testing. One of these tests is an endoscopy where the doctor uses a small camera to look inside your food pathway.
Immediate First Aid:
- First, take the chemical away and make sure it is not in contact with the person anymore. Be careful not to get it on yourself.
- Rinse the chemical off the skin or out of the eyes with cool (not cold) running water. Do not put ice on the burn because you will cause more damage. Do not scrub or rub the burn.
- Put clean gauze over the burn. Don’t use any lotion or ointment on the burn unless the doctor recommends it.
- Call poison control for help with giving first aid to someone who has swallowed a caustic chemical.
- Put a cool compress or cloth on a burn to relieve pain.
- Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicine like ibuprofen to relieve pain.
- Keep the burn clean and protected with gauze. Don’t use lotion or ointment on the burn.
- Don’t try to remove skin or blisters.
Burn care from the doctor or hospital may be needed for a severe burn. Location of treatment (inpatient or outpatient) and type of treatment will depend on how serious the burn is and how much of the body is hurt.
- Keep as few dangerous chemicals in the house as possible and find safer ways to clean. Buy only as much of a chemical as you need so you don’t have to store it for a long time.
- Keep chemicals in their original bottles with their labels.
- Put chemicals where children cannot get them.
- Don’t mix chemicals. For example, mixing ammonia and bleach can create toxic fumes that are dangerous to breathe.
- When you use chemicals, protect your eyes and skin and use them only in places with good ventilation.