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chemical burns

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Different types of burns

Alternative Names 
burns from chemicals

Chemical burns involve injury to a part of the body caused by short- or long-term exposure to a chemical substance.

What are the signs and symptoms of the injury? 
Symptoms can include:
  • blisters, rashes and burns on the skin
  • cloudy, red or watery eyes
  • trouble breathing
  • stomach pain
  • bluish or reddish lips
  • convulsions, which is when a group of muscles in the body suddenly shake violently and uncontrollably
  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • allergic reactions, which may cause hives, itching, swelling, nausea and vomiting
  • pain at the site of the injury
  • unconsciousness, which occurs with severe chemical exposures
What are the causes and risks of the injury? 
Chemical burns are caused in many ways. They can be from household chemicals, automobile accidents, and railroad accidents. Factories can also release chemicals. The burning of certain materials, such as houses, automobiles or trash, can also cause chemical burns. Chemical burns usually occur on the surface of the body, such as the skin or eyes. However, chemicals may also be inhaled or swallowed, causing lung or gut damage.

What can be done to prevent the injury? 
Avoiding sites of chemical spills or fires can help prevent chemical burns. People are advised to wear protective clothing, gloves, and safety glasses when working with chemicals.

Many household products are made of poisonous and toxic chemicals that can cause severe chemical burns.

Even very small exposures can cause burns. Prevention tips for around the house include:
  • chemicals should be kept in a locked cabinet out of the reach of children
  • materials like ammonia and bleach should not be mixed together.
  • chemicals that can cause burns or other toxic problems should only be used in well-ventilated areas
  • chemicals should not be stored in containers that may be used later for food or drink
How is the injury recognised? 
Usually, people with a chemical burn know if they have been exposed to a chemical. But sometimes the person may be unconscious and unable to talk. Some signs that indicate that chemicals are involved in the injury are:
  • a chemical smell
  • evidence of an empty or partially-empty chemical container lying around
  • changes in the victim's skin that look like a chemical burn
Sometimes the burn is on a part of the body that cannot be seen, such as the lungs. Chemical burns to the lungs cause breathing trouble, coughing and wheezing.

What are the treatments for the injury? 
In most cases, medical care should be obtained quickly, unless the burn is very small. While waiting for professional care, the following things can be done to help a chemical burn victim:
  • whatever has caused the burn should be removed from the skin right away if possible.
  • cool, running water from the nearest source should be used to thoroughly rinse affected areas. This includes any areas of the skin, mouth or eyes. If someone has swallowed chemicals, large amounts of water can be swallowed. This helps to dilute the chemical, or make it less strong.
  • water should be run over affected areas of the body for at least 15 minutes.
The longer the chemical remains on the skin, the more severe the injury will be. Those giving help should be careful not to expose themselves or anyone else to the chemical.

If people are faint, pale or have shallow breathing, they may be going into shock. Such people should be laid down flat on their back with their legs elevated, such as on some pillows. Immediate emergency care should then be sought.

Cool, wet compresses can be applied to the burn to help relieve pain and discomfort. Ointments or other substances should not be rubbed or applied to burned areas without a doctor's approval. The burned area should be wrapped with a clean cloth.

Medical help should be obtained right away, especially if the burned area has blisters and is more than 7.5 centimetres in diameter.

The victim should not be left alone. Other problems, such as trouble breathing or passing out, may occur.

Once people get to the hospital, there are many treatments available. Depending upon how bad the burn is, a doctor may use topical treatments, such as creams or ointments. Antibiotics can be given topically or by other means, such as pills or through an intravenous tube. Surgery, including skin grafts, may be needed for severe burns.

What are the side effects of the treatments? 
The main side effect that can occur is injury to the person trying to help the burn victim. Both the burn victim and the person helping can be injured, resulting in even worse injuries for the original victim.

All medications have possible side effects. Creams and antibiotics can cause allergic reactions. Other side effects depend on the drug used. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding, infection, and reactions to the anaesthetic.

What happens after treatment for the injury? 
After first aid is given, emergency help should be sought unless the burn is minor and limited to a small area of skin, generally less than 3 inches wide. If questions occur in an emergency, a poison control centre can be called for further information on the type of chemical and treatment options.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.

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