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Hydrocarbon Poisoning


Gerald F. O’Malley

, DO, Grand Strand Regional Medical Center;

Rika O’Malley

, MD, Albert Einstein Medical Center

Last full review/revision Jul 2020
Topic Resources
  • Sniffing glue or swallowing gasoline, paint thinners, some cleaning products, or kerosene can cause hydrocarbon poisoning.

  • Swallowing or inhaling hydrocarbons can cause lung irritation, with coughing, choking, shortness of breath, and neurologic problems.

  • Sniffing or breathing fumes can cause irregular heartbeats, rapid heart rate, or sudden death, particularly after exertion or stress.

  • The diagnosis is based on a description of the events, the characteristic odor of petroleum on the person’s breath or clothing, and sometimes a chest x-ray.

  • Treatment involves removing contaminated clothing, washing the skin, and giving oxygen and sometimes antibiotics to people with breathing problems or pneumonia.

Petroleum products, cleaning products, and glues contain hydrocarbons (substances composed largely of hydrogen and carbon). Many children younger than age 5 are poisoned by swallowing petroleum products, such as gasoline, kerosene, and paint thinners, but most recover. At greater risk are adolescents who intentionally breathe the fumes of glues, paint, solvents, cleaning sprays, gasoline, or fluorocarbons used as refrigerants or propellants in aerosols to become intoxicated, a type of substance use called huffing, bagging, sniffing, glue sniffing, or volatile substance use Volatile Solvents Volatile solvents are liquids that easily vaporize into a gas. When inhaled, the gas can cause a state of intoxication and long-term nerve and organ damage. Volatile solvents are found in many... read more . Such inhalation may cause fatal irregular heartbeats or cardiac arrest, especially after exertion or stress. Repeated inhalation of toluene (a component of some of these products) can damage parts of the brain. Some hydrocarbon products also contain poisonous additives such as methanol or lead.

Swallowed hydrocarbons cause coughing and choking, which allows the hydrocarbon liquid to enter the airways and irritate the lungs, a serious condition in itself (chemical pneumonitis Chemical Pneumonitis Aspiration pneumonia is lung infection caused by inhaling mouth secretions, stomach contents, or both. Chemical pneumonitis is lung irritation caused by inhalation of substances irritating or... read more ), and can lead to severe pneumonia. Lung involvement is a particular problem with thin, easy-flowing hydrocarbons such as mineral oil, which is used in furniture polish, and others, including gasoline. Severe poisoning also can affect the brain, heart, bone marrow, and kidneys. Thick, less-runny hydrocarbons such as lamp oil and motor oil are less likely to enter the lungs but can cause severe and persistent irritation if they do.

Did You Know...

  • A person who gets high by breathing hydrocarbon fumes may die suddenly from fatal irregular heartbeats or cardiac arrest.

Symptoms of Hydrocarbon Poisoning

A person usually coughs and chokes after swallowing or inhaling hydrocarbons. A burning sensation can develop in the stomach, and the person may vomit. If the lungs are affected, the person continues to cough intensely. Breathing becomes rapid, and the skin may become bluish (cyanosis Cyanosis Cyanosis is a bluish discoloration of the skin resulting from an inadequate amount of oxygen in the blood. Cyanosis occurs when oxygen-depleted (deoxygenated) blood, which is bluish rather than... read more ) because of low levels of oxygen in the blood. Young children may have cyanosis, hold their breath, and cough persistently. Sometimes difficulty breathing does not develop until many hours after the hydrocarbons enter the lungs.

Hydrocarbon ingestion also causes neurologic symptoms, including drowsiness, poor coordination, stupor or coma, and seizures.

Diagnosis of Hydrocarbon Poisoning

  • History of contact with hydrocarbons and odor of petroleum on person

  • Sometimes chest x-ray and blood gas analysis

Treatment of Hydrocarbon Poisoning

  • Removal of contaminated clothing and washing of skin

  • Avoidance of stomach emptying

  • Sometimes hospitalization for supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation

To treat poisoning, contaminated clothing should be removed, and the skin should be washed. If the person has stopped coughing and choking, particularly if the ingestion was small and accidental, treatment at home is possible. Home treatment should be discussed with someone at a poison center.

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