Chemical Burns

Written by Elly Dock and Jennifer Nelson | Published on July 25, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Overview

Chemical burns occur when the skin or eyes come into contact with irritants, such as acids or bases (alkaline).

Chemicals that come into contact with skin may cause a reaction on the skin or within the body. Chemical burns may affect the internal organs if the chemicals are swallowed.

If someone swallows a chemical, immediately check their mouth for cuts or burns. Call local poison control for assistance or go to the nearest emergency facility. Do not give anything by mouth unless instructed to by a poison control professional. If the person is unconscious, dial 911.

What Causes Chemical Burns?

Most chemical burns are caused by contact with acids and bases. Strong acids can cause severe burns. Chemical burns that are caused by acids and bases are also known as caustic burns. Burns caused by chemicals can happen at school, work, home, or anywhere that you handle chemical materials. Some of the most common products that cause chemical burns include, but are not limited to:

  • car battery acid
  • cleaning products
  • bleach
  • ammonia
  • denture cleaners
  • teeth whitening products
  • pool chlorinating products

Who Is at Risk for Chemical Burns?

People who are at the highest risk for chemical burns are infants, the elderly, and the disabled since they may not be able to handle chemicals properly. Chemical burns may be the result of an accident or not following proper safety procedures when using chemicals at work or school. Those who have decreased mobility may have a higher risk for chemical burns if they are handling acids, or other chemicals without assistance or guidance.

What are the Symptoms of Chemical Burns?

Symptoms of chemical burns may vary depending on how the burn was received. Burns caused by a swallowed chemical will be treated differently than burns that occur on the skin. The symptoms from a chemical burn may depend on some of the following factors:

  • length of contact with chemical
  • if the chemical was inhaled or swallowed
  • if skin was intact during contact (no open cuts or wounds)
  • location of the contact
  • the amount of chemical used
  • concentration of the chemical
  • strength of the chemical
  • if the chemical was gas, liquid, or solid

For example, if the chemical was alkaline and was swallowed, it will cause burns on the inside of the stomach, which may produce different symptoms than other chemical burns. In general, the common symptoms associated with chemical burns include:

  • blackened or dead skin (mainly seen in chemical burns from acid)
  • irritation, redness, or burning at the affected area
  • numbness or pain at the affected area
  • loss of vision or changes in vision if chemicals have come into contact with eyes

If the chemical has been swallowed, some of the following symptoms may also occur:

  • irregular heartbeat
  • headache
  • low blood pressure
  • cardiac arrest (heart attack)
  • shortness of breath or coughing
  • seizures
  • weak or dizzy sensation
  • muscle twitches

Diagnosing and Classifying Chemical Burns

Doctors classify burns according to the extent of the injury and the depth of the burn itself. Burn classification depths have been changed in recent years. Injury to the top layer of skin (the epidermis) is called a superficial burn (formerly called a first degree burn). Injury to the second layer of skin (the dermis) is called a partial thickness or dermal injury (formerly called a second degree burn) and injury to the third layer of skin (subcutaneous tissue) is referred to as a full thickness injury (formerly a third degree burn).

Your doctor may diagnose your burn based on several factors. These may include:

  • the level of pain at the affected area
  • the amount of damage to the area
  • the depth of the burn
  • signs of possible infection
  • the amount of swelling present

Treating Chemical Burns

If possible, first aid should be given to chemical burns immediately. This includes removing the chemical that caused the burn and rinsing the skin under running water for 10 to 20 minutes. If the burn occurred in the eyes, rinse continually for at least twenty minutes before seeking emergency care.

Remove any clothing or jewelry contaminated by the chemical. Wrap the burned area loosely if possible with a dry sterile dressing or clean cloth. If the burn is superficial, take an over-the- counter pain reliever. If the burn is more serious, head to the closest emergency facility.

If someone shows signs of shock or shallow breathing, the burn is larger than 3 inches or occurred in the eyes, hands, feet, groin, buttocks or over a major joint, like the knee, or the pain is not controlled with OTC pain relievers, head to the ER immediately.

Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor may treat your burn by providing burn wound care consisting of antibiotic therapy, anti-itch medication, debridement (cleaning or removing dirt and dead tissue), skin grafting ( attaching healthy skin from another part of the body to the burn wound to improve healing.), specialized bandages and IV fluids.

Your doctor may recommend a management plan for your burn wound on an inpatient or outpatient basis, depending on severity of the burn.

For Severe Burns

Burn rehabilitation programs may treat severely burned people by providing some of the following treatments:

  • skin replacement
  • pain management
  • cosmetic surgery
  • occupational therapy (therapy in which you modify tasks and learn to adapt)
  • counseling
  • patient education

What Is the Overall Outlook for Chemical Burns?

The outcome of a chemical burn injury is affected by two factors: the amount of the body that has been involved in the burn, and the age of the burn victim. In severe chemical burn injuries, your doctor may recommend that you receive treatment at a specialized burn center. With the correct treatment and rehabilitation program, people generally have a good chance for recovery.

Your outcome may depend on the overall severity of your chemical burn. Those who have experienced severe chemical burns may have a disfigurement, loss of motion, limb loss, infections, scarring, muscle and tissue damage, depression, flashbacks, and nightmares.

How Can I Prevent Chemical Burns?

You can prevent chemical burns by practicing safe behaviors and safety precautions while at home, at work and anywhere else chemicals are used. These actions and precautions include:

  • keeping chemicals out of the reach of children
  • storing chemicals properly and safely after use
  • using chemicals in a well-ventilated area
  • leaving chemicals in their original containers with warning labels
  • avoiding the use of chemicals
  • avoiding mixing chemicals with other chemicals
  • only purchasing chemicals in protective containers
  • keeping chemicals away from food and drinks
  • wearing protective gear and clothing when using chemicals
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