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Chemical Burns

By

Damien Wilson Carter

, MD, Tufts University School of Medicine

Last full review/revision Mar 2021| Content last modified Mar 2021
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Chemical burns are caused by caustic substances that contact the skin or eyes or are swallowed.

(See also Burns to the Eye.)

Caustic substances are chemicals that can damage tissue. The damage is similar to a burn caused by heat.

Caustic substances are sometimes present in household products, including those containing lye (in drain cleaners and paint removers), phenols (in deodorizers, sanitizers, and disinfectants), sodium hypochlorite (in disinfectants and bleaches), sulfuric acid (in toilet bowl cleaners and battery acid), and hydrochloric acid (in swimming pool chemicals and masonry cleaners).

Many chemicals used in industry and during armed conflicts can cause burns. Wet cement left on the skin can cause severe burns as well.

Usually, people accidentally spill or splash the caustic substance on themselves. However, sometimes people swallow the caustic substance (see also Caustic Substances Poisoning). Many ingestions of caustic substances are accidental, occurring when young children swallow products that have not been properly secured or kept out of their reach. Caustic substances are sometimes deliberately swallowed by adults attempting suicide.

Symptoms of Chemical Burns

Chemical burns of the skin usually cause symptoms similar to first-degree (superficial) burns. The area is red, swollen, and painful but does not develop blisters. Sometimes, burns are deeper, with blisters and severe pain. Rarely, a strong acid or alkali will cause a full-thickness (third-degree) burn, that damages the skin all the way through.

Symptoms of swallowing a caustic substance can be severe. The substance can burn the tongue, mouth, esophagus, and/or stomach and cause severe pain and trouble swallowing.

Treatment of Chemical Burns

The steps in stopping chemical burns are

  • Remove contaminated clothing.

  • Brush away any dry powders or particles.

  • Rinse the area with large amounts of water.

Because chemicals can continue to inflict damage long after first contacting the skin, rinsing should continue for at least 30 minutes. In rare cases involving certain industrial chemicals (for example, metal sodium), water should not be used because it can actually worsen the burn. In addition, some chemicals have specific treatments that can further reduce skin damage. Further treatment of chemical burns is the same as treatment for thermal burns.

In the United States, if more information is needed concerning treatment of a burn caused by a specific chemical, the local Poison Control Center can be contacted at 1-800-222-1222.

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