Chemical Burn Overview
Chemical burns can occur in the home, at work or school, and as a result of accident
or assault. Although few people in the United States die after contact with chemicals
in the home, many substances common in both living and storage areas can do
Many chemical burns occur accidentally through misuse of products such as those
for hair, skin, and nail care. Although injuries do occur at home, the risk of sustaining
a chemical burn is much greater in the workplace, especially in businesses and
manufacturing plants that use large quantities of chemicals
Chemical Burn Causes
Most chemicals that cause burns are either strong acids or bases. A glance at the
medical information on the labels of dangerous chemicals confirms the expected
toxicity. Common sense precautions and consumer education can reduce your
family’s risk of injury. A variety of household products fits this description:
• Concrete mix
• Drain or toilet bowl cleaners
• Metal cleaners
• Pool chlorinators
Chemical Burn Symptoms
All chemical burns should be considered medical emergencies.
Most chemical burns occur on the face, eyes, and arms and legs. Usually a chemical
burn will be relatively small and will require only outpatient treatment. Chemical burns
can be deceiving, however. Some agents can cause deep tissue damage not readily
apparent when you first look at it.
• Tissue damage from chemical burns depends on several factors.
o The strength or concentration of the agent
o The site of contact (eye, skin, mucous membrane)
o Whether swallowed or inhaled
o Whether or not skin is intact
o With how much of the agent you came into contact
o The duration of exposure
o How the chemical works
• Signs and symptoms of chemical burns include the following:
o Redness, irritation, or burning at the site of contact
o Pain or numbness at the site of contact
o Formation of blisters or black dead skin at the contact site
o Vision changes if the chemical gets into your eyes
o Cough or shortness of breath
• In severe cases, you may develop any of the following:
o Low blood pressure
o Faintness, weakness, dizziness
o Shortness of breath or severe cough
o Muscle twitching or seizures
o Cardiac arrest or irregular heartbeat
• Chemical burns can be very unpredictable. Death from a chemical injury,
although rare, can occur.
When to Seek Medical Care
Once all immediate danger has passed and you have completed basic first aid, call
your doctor to review your injury and the chemical involved to make sure you need
no further emergency treatment. Your doctor can arrange appropriate treatment or
will direct you to go to a hospital’s Emergency Department.
Any chemical burn can be a legitimate reason to summon emergency medical help.
Always err on the side of safety and call 911 if you don’t know the severity of the
injury, medical stability of the person injured, or if you have any concerns about a
Emergency personnel are trained to assess the extent of a chemical burn, begin
treatment, and transport victims to the most appropriate hospital.
Emergency officials also may determine the need for more involved decontamination
of both you and the accident site prior to going to the hospital. When you contact
911, tells the dispatcher as much of the following information as possible:
• Number and location of the injured person or people
• Mechanism or nature of injury (how it happened)
• Whether emergency personnel can reach the victims (are victims trapped?)
• Name, strength, and volume or quantity of the chemical causing the burn (give
a container of the chemical to emergency personnel, if possible)
• Length of time of contact with the chemical
Exams and Tests
In the emergency department, you can expect the following:
• Initial evaluation and stabilization
• Rapid evaluation of the chemical
• Determination of the extent of injury
• Blood tests and other studies to determine if you should be admitted to the
Chemical Burn Treatment
Most people with chemical burns do not need to be admitted. Most can go home after
arranging follow-up care with their doctor. In severe cases, however, they may need
to be admitted to a hospital
Self-Care at Home
Begin basic first aid. Immediately call 911 if you have a severe injury, any shortness
of breath, chest pain, dizziness, or other symptoms throughout your body. If you are
aiding an injured person with these symptoms, lay the person down and immediately
• Remove yourself or the victim from the accident area.
• Remove any contaminated clothing.
• Wash the injured area to dilute or remove the substance, using large volumes
of water. Wash for at least 20 minutes, taking care not to allow runoff to
contact unaffected parts of your body. Gently brush away any solid materials,
again avoiding unaffected body surfaces.
• Especially wash away any chemical in your eye. Sometimes the best way to
get large amounts of water to your eye is to step into the shower
• IV fluids may be needed to normalize blood pressure and heart rate.
• The IV access may also be used for any medications needed to treat pain or
protect against infection.
• Decontamination will begin (likely water irrigation).
• You will be given any antidote to counteract the chemical, if appropriate.
• Antibiotics often are not needed for minor chemical burns.
• Wounds will be cleaned and bandaged with medicated creams and sterile
wraps as needed.
• Consultation with other medical specialists may be done if indicated.
• Pain in a burn can often be severe. Adequate pain control will be addressed
by your doctor.
• If there is any indication of breathing problems, a breathing tube may be
placed in your airway to help.