Acetone poisoning occurs when there’s more acetone in your body than the liver can break down.
Acetone is a clear liquid that smells like nail polish remover. When exposed to the air, it quickly evaporates and remains highly flammable. Acetone is dangerous to use around an open flame. Hundreds of commonly used household products contain acetone, including furniture polish, rubbing alcohol, and nail polish.
Every day, the body breaks down fats into organic molecules called ketones. Ketones contain acetone and travel through the bloodstream until your liver metabolizes them. Acetone poisoning can occur when there’s an abnormally high amount of ketones. This is a condition known as “ketoacidosis.”
Metabolic diseases, such as type 1 and type 2 diabetes, can result in ketoacidosis if glucose levels aren’t properly managed. In cases of prolonged starvation, the body’s carbohydrate stores are depleted and the body begins to break down its stored fats into ketones. The liver cannot process such high levels of ketones, and blood ketone levels grow dangerously high.
Acetone poisoning can have other causes, including:
- drinking rubbing alcohol for intoxication
- overexposure to specific paints in confined spaces
- accidentally drinking cleaning solutions that contain acetone
- drinking nail polish remover
Acetone poisoning is rare. The body is capable of breaking down large amounts of acetone naturally. For overexposure to occur, you must produce, inhale, or ingest very large amounts within a short period of time. Mild acetone poisoning symptoms include:
- slurred speech
- lack of coordination
- a sweet taste in the mouth
Severe symptoms are very rare and include:
- low blood pressure
- deep stupor
Acetone poisoning can be life-threatening.
Acetone poisoning has an unusual symptom that aids in diagnosis. The ketones in your blood will cause your breath to have a fruity odor. It’s difficult to test for acetone because of the amount naturally present in the body. Your doctor will look for high levels of acetone and ketones and physical symptoms to diagnose you. Your doctor can use a urine test to look for the presence of ketones. Under normal circumstances, there are no ketones in your urine. Your doctor can also give you a blood test to check your blood level of ketones and get a toxicology screening to determine the presence of certain toxic chemicals.
Giving oxygen is one way to treat acetone poisoning. The concentration ratio of acetone in the blood to acetone in the alveoli (sacs) of the lungs is 330. According to an article in the Western Journal of Medicine, this means that you must breathe out 330 liters of air and replace it with clean air to clear the acetone from one liter of blood. (The average adult body contains 5 to 6 liters of blood.) This is an effective way to remove acetone from your blood. However, clearing acetone through your lungs can take days or weeks.
You shouldn’t induce vomiting if you’ve drunk large amounts of acetone. Acetone is harmful to the skin in your mouth and the lining of your esophagus. The common treatment is to pump your stomach. Your doctor can pump your stomach by putting a tube down your throat and into your stomach. They then pump small amounts of water or saline into your stomach and suck it back out until there’s no more acetone.
Stomach pumping raises the risk of accidental aspiration pneumonia, a condition in which the water is accidentally pumped into the lungs instead of the stomach. A person can drown from the liquid filling their lungs.
If you have a metabolic disorder, such as diabetes, be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions regarding diet, medication, and lifestyle. If you notice changes in your symptoms, contact your doctor to discuss adjustments to your regimen. This will keep internal sources of acetone under control.
Acetone from external sources can enter your body by accidentally or purposely:
- breathing it in from products such as nail polish or paint thinner
- splashing it in your eyes
- touching your skin to it
- drinking it
You can prevent acetone exposure by taking basic precautions:
- Keep spaces well ventilated when using products with acetone. Wear a face mask if you’re using products with acetone and the ventilation is poor.
- Wear safety glasses to protect your eyes from acetone.
- Store acetone away from flames or heaters. It’s highly flammable.
- Keep children away from bottles of liquid containing acetone at all times.