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
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
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 acid
- denture cleaners
- teeth whitening products
- pool 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
- the length of time your skin was in contact with
- 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 chemical used
- whether 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
- blackened or dead skin, which is mainly seen in
chemical burns from acid
- irritation, redness, or burning in the affected
- 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
- irregular heartbeat
- low blood pressure
- cardiac arrest or heart attack
- shortness of breath
- muscle twitches
How Are Chemical Burns Diagnosed?
Your doctor will make a diagnosis based on several factors. These
- 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
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
- 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
- the burn is on your face, hands, feet, groin, or
- the burn occurred over a major joint, such as your
- the pain can’t be controlled with OTC pain
- 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:
- 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
- patient 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
- limb loss
- muscle and tissue damage
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 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
- keeping chemicals away from food and drinks
- wearing protective gear and clothing when using
Call a poison control center if you’re unsure whether a certain
substance is toxic.