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. Bases are described as alkaline. 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. What Causes Chemical Burns? 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 acidbleachammoniadenture cleanersteeth whitening productspool chlorination products Who Is at Risk for Chemical Burns? People who are at the highest risk for chemical burns are infants, older adults, and people who are disabled. 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. What Are the Symptoms of Chemical Burns? 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 chemicalwhether the chemical was inhaled or swallowedwhether your skin had open cuts or wounds or was intact during contact the location of contactthe amount and strength of chemical usedwhether the chemical was a gas, liquid, or solid For example, if the chemical was alkaline and you swallowed it, it will cause burns on the inside of your stomach. This may produce different symptoms than a chemical burn on your skin. In general, however, the common symptoms associated with chemical burns include: blackened or dead skin, which is mainly seen in chemical burns from acidirritation, redness, or burning in the affected areanumbness or pain in the affected areaa 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: irregular heartbeatheadachelow blood pressurecardiac arrest or heart attackshortness of breath coughingseizuresdizzinessmuscle twitches How Are Chemical Burns Diagnosed? Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on several factors. These may include: the level of pain in the affected areathe amount of damage to the areathe depth of the burnsigns of possible infectionthe amount of swelling present What Are the Types of Chemical Burns? 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. How Are Chemical Burns Treated? 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 aspirin. 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 lengththe burn is on your face, hands, feet, groin, or buttocksthe burn occurred over a major joint, such as your kneethe 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 doctor may use the following methods to treat your burn: antibioticsanti-itch medicationsdebridement, which involves cleaning or removing dirt and dead tissueskin grafting, which involves attaching healthy skin from another part of the body to the burn woundintravenous (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 replacementpain managementcosmetic surgeryoccupational therapy, which can help you redevelop everyday skillscounselingpatient education What Is the Long-Term Outlook for Someone with Chemical Burns? 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’ve experienced severe chemical burns may have complications, including: disfigurementlimb lossinfectionscarringmuscle and tissue damagedepressionflashbacksnightmares Most people with severe chemical burns will recover if they have the proper treatment and rehabilitation. How Can I Prevent Chemical Burns? 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 childrenstoring chemicals properly and safely after useusing chemicals in a well-ventilated arealeaving chemicals in their original containers with warning labelsavoiding the use of chemicalsavoiding mixing chemicals with other chemicalsonly purchasing chemicals in protective containerskeeping chemicals away from food and drinkswearing protective gear and clothing when using chemicals Call a poison control center if you’re unsure whether a certain substance is toxic.
Elly Dock and Jennifer Nelson
Medically Reviewed by:
Jul 25, 2012
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.