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Chemical burns

Chemical burns can happen in the home, at work or school, or as a result of accident or assault. Although few people in the UK die after contact with chemicals in the home, many common substances in both living and storage areas are capable of doing serious harm.

Many chemical burns happen accidentally through the misuse of products used for hair, skin and nail care. Although injuries do take place 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 look at the medical information on the labels of dangerous chemicals can confirm they may be toxic. Common sense precautions and consumer education can reduce your family's risk of injury. A variety of household products can be toxic, including:

  • Bleach
  • Concrete mix
  • Drain or toilet bowl cleaners
  • Metal cleaners

Chemical burn symptoms

All chemical burns should be considered medical emergencies. If you have a chemical burn of the mouth or throat, call 999 and seek immediate medical attention.

Most chemical burns happen to the face, eyes, or arms and legs. Usually a chemical burn will be relatively small and will require only outpatient treatment. However, chemical burns can be deceiving. Some substances can cause deep tissue damage that is not obvious when you first look at it.

Tissue damage from chemical burns depends on several factors, including:

  • The strength or concentration of the substance
  • The site of contact ( eye, skin, mucous membrane)
  • Whether swallowed or inhaled
  • Whether skin is broken or intact
  • How much of the substance you came into contact with
  • The duration of exposure
  • How the chemical works

Signs and symptoms of chemical burns include the following:

  • Redness, irritation or burning at the area of contact
  • Pain or numbness at the area of contact
  • Formation of blisters or black dead skin at the contact area
  • Vision changes if the chemical gets into your eyes
  • Cough or shortness of breath

In severe cases, you may develop any of the following:

Chemical burns can be very unpredictable. Although they are rare, death from a chemical injury can happen.

When to seek medical help

Once the immediate danger has passed and you have carried out basic first aid, seek medical advice about your injury and the chemical involved, to make sure you don’t need any more emergency treatment. Your doctor can arrange appropriate treatment or send you to a hospital's accident and emergency department.

Any chemical burn is a legitimate reason to summon emergency medical help. Always err on the side of safety and call 999 if you don't know the severity of the injury, the medical stability of the person injured, or if you have any concerns at all about a chemical injury.

Emergency staff are trained to assess the extent of a chemical burn, begin treatment, and transport victims to the most appropriate medical centre.

Emergency officials also may determine the need for more involved decontamination of both you and the accident site before going to the hospital. When you contact 999, tell the responder 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

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