What are chemical burns?

A chemical burn occurs when your skin or eyes come into contact with an irritant, such as an acid or a base. Chemical burns are also known as caustic burns. They may cause a reaction on your skin or within your body. These burns can affect your internal organs if chemicals are swallowed.

You should immediately check your mouth for cuts or burns if you swallow a chemical. You should also call a local poison control center or go to the emergency room right away if you swallow a chemical.

Call 911 if someone you know has a chemical burn and is unconscious.

Acids and bases cause most chemical burns. Burns caused by chemicals can happen at school, work, or any place where you handle chemical materials. Some of the most common products that cause chemical burns are:

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

People who are at the highest risk for chemical burns are infants, older adults, and people with disabilities. These groups may not be able to handle chemicals properly. You may be at increased risk for chemical burns if you’re handling acids or other chemicals without assistance and you have decreased mobility.

The symptoms of chemical burns can vary depending on how the burn occurred. A burn caused by a chemical you swallowed will cause different symptoms than burns that occur on your skin. The symptoms of a chemical burn will depend on:

  • the length of time your skin was in contact with the chemical
  • whether the chemical was inhaled or swallowed
  • whether your skin had open cuts or wounds or was intact during contact
  • the location of contact
  • the amount and strength of the chemical used
  • whether the chemical was a gas, liquid, or solid

For example, if you swallow an alkaline chemical, it will cause burns on the inside of your stomach. This may produce different symptoms than a chemical burn on your skin.

In general, the common symptoms associated with chemical burns include:

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

Some of the following symptoms may also occur if you’ve swallowed a chemical:

Your healthcare provider will make a diagnosis based on several factors. These may include:

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

Your doctor will classify the burn according to the extent of the injury and the depth of the burn itself:

  • Injury to the top layer of skin, or the epidermis, is called a superficial burn. This was formerly called a first-degree burn.
  • Injury to the second layer of skin, or the dermis, is called a partial thickness injury or dermal injury. This was formerly called a second-degree burn.
  • Injury to the third layer of skin, or subcutaneous tissue, is referred to as a full thickness injury. This was formerly called a third-degree burn.

First aid should be given to chemical burns immediately if possible. This includes removing the chemical that caused the burn and rinsing the skin under running water for 10 to 20 minutes. If a chemical came into contact with your eyes, rinse your eyes continuously for at least 20 minutes before seeking emergency care.

Remove any clothing or jewelry contaminated by the chemical. Wrap the burned area loosely with a dry sterile dressing or a clean cloth if possible. If the burn is superficial, you can take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. You should go to the emergency room immediately if the burn is more serious.

You should also go to the hospital right away if:

  • the burn is larger than 3 inches in width or length
  • the burn is on your face, hands, feet, groin, or buttocks
  • the burn occurred over a major joint, such as your knee
  • the pain can’t be controlled with OTC pain medications
  • you have the signs and symptoms of shock, which include shallow breathing, dizziness, and low blood pressure

Depending on the severity of your condition, your healthcare provider may use the following methods to treat your burn:

  • antibiotics
  • anti-itch medications
  • debridement, which involves cleaning or removing dirt and dead tissue
  • skin grafting, which involves attaching healthy skin from another part of the body to the burn wound
  • intravenous (IV) fluids

For severe burns

You’ll need burn rehabilitation if you’re severely burned. This type of rehabilitation may provide some of the following treatments:

  • skin replacement
  • pain management
  • cosmetic surgery
  • occupational therapy, which can help you redevelop everyday skills
  • counseling
  • patient education

The outlook depends on the severity of the burn. Minor chemical burns tend to heal fairly quickly with the appropriate treatment. More severe burns, however, may require long-term treatment. In this case, your doctor may recommend that you receive care at a specialized burn center.

Some people who have experienced severe chemical burns may have complications, including:

  • disfigurement
  • limb loss
  • infection
  • scarring
  • muscle and tissue damage
  • depression
  • flashbacks
  • nightmares

Most people with severe chemical burns will recover if they have the proper treatment and rehabilitation.

You can prevent chemical burns by following safety procedures and taking precautions while handling chemical materials. These 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

Call a poison control center if you’re unsure whether a certain substance is toxic.