All About Burns: Chemical Burns

This is the first post of our 3-part series on burns. Read part two for more on electrical burns or part three for more on thermal burns.

Burns of any sort remove your body’s primary buffer against infection, but the most unpredictable are chemical burns. Chemical burns are also known as caustic burns because the damage is caused by a corrosive material in liquid, powder, or another form. 

Between 2005 and 2014, about 3% of all adults admitted to burn centers in the US suffered chemical burns. Meanwhile, a study showed that over 17 years, about 40,000 children, or about 2,300 children annually, were admitted to the ER with chemical burns from a household product.

Here is a look into the types of chemical burns a person can suffer, the causes and risk factors, and the symptoms and complications.

Types of Chemical Burns

Chemical burns range from first- to third-degree burns:

  • First-degree or superficial burns affect only the outer layer of the skin called the epidermis. The skin becomes red and painful, but there is usually no permanent damage.
  • Second-degree or partial-thickness burns extend into the second layer of skin called the dermis. The skin blisters and swells, which may leave scars.
  • Third-degree or full-thickness burns are the most severe. The burn goes through the skin and may damage the tissue underneath. The area may appear black or white, and because the nerves are destroyed, the individual may not feel any pain.

Most first-degree burns respond well to home treatment. Still, anything that damages the tissues below the epidermis requires medical attention.

Family First ER has invested in a complete line of future-forward diagnostic technology to help our physicians visualize bone and soft tissue damage. Learn more here.

The Causes and Risk Factors of Chemical Burns

Strong acids or bases (alkali) make up the chemicals that damage the skin and other tissues, burning the cells and creating scar tissue. Manufacturers are legally required to label dangerous chemicals and confirm the expected toxicity.

The following is a brief list of common chemical agents in homes, businesses, and factories that can cause burns:

  • Ammonia, bleach, detergents, and drain or toilet bowl cleaners
  • Battery acid, gasoline, and pesticides
  • Wet concrete, metal cleaners, and rust removers
  • Paint thinners, fertilizers, and pool chlorinators
  • Tooth-whitening products and hair relaxers
  • Sanitizers and disinfectants

Batteries, including button batteries, cause chemical burns due to the acid they contain. And if you ever wondered why the Tide pod challenge was so dangerous, you can see that detergents are on the list of chemical agents that can cause burns. 

Most chemical burns are accidents, including misusing hair, skin, and nail care products. In rare cases, chemicals are used in an assault.

People at high risk for chemical burns include the following:

  • Factory and construction workers
  • Farmers and mechanics
  • Plumbers 
  • Military personnel
  • Laboratory technicians and technologists

The highest risk for chemical burns exists in factories or workplaces that use or store large amounts of chemicals. People who work in these areas are more likely to come into contact with chemicals that cause burns.

Symptoms and Complications of Chemical Burns

Most chemical burns occur on the face, arms, legs, and eyes. The burns result in:

  • Scabs or blisters
  • Cracked, dry, or peeling skin
  • Redness and pain
  • Skin discoloration and swelling
  • Irritation or itching
  • Black, dead skin and numbness at the contact site

Most burns are minor and require only outpatient or home attention. However, some chemical burns cause unseen damage when the material seeps into the skin or initial wound and continues to burn tissue and organs beneath. 

When a chemical burn is in the eye, you can experience visual changes such as blurry vision, a swelling eyelid, pain, redness, stinging, burning, or watery eyes. In severe cases, a chemical burn can cause blindness.

If a person ingests and chemical, they can suffer damage to their mouth, esophagus, and stomach. The resulting injuries can result in difficulty speaking, coughing, drooling, chest pain, hoarseness, and pain. The patient may have upper airway swelling, nausea, vomiting, or low blood pressure (hypotension).

Many serious burn victims become faint or dizzy or develop headaches. They can suffer muscle twitches, seizures, irregular heartbeat, and cardiac arrest.

The victim may go into shock and have cold, clammy skin, a weak pulse, and shallow breathing.

It is important to be aware of these symptoms and to take precautions that lessen the risk of chemical burn.

Burn Prevention

You can prevent burns with some basic precautions and consumer education.

In your home, secure all chemicals in locked cabinets or out of the reach of children. Store household chemicals in the original containers and always follow the labeled directions for use.

In the workplace, ensure the area is well-ventilated, wear safety clothing and eye protection, and try to use chemicals as little as possible. Always pay attention and adhere to workplace safety precautions, especially if you are regularly working with hazardous chemicals.

While ER visits are usually unplanned, there are ways to alleviate the stress and anxiety that accompanies an emergency. Here is what to expect during a visit to the ER.

When to Go to the Emergency Room

If you are exposed to a hazardous chemical and suspect you were burned, remove any clothing soaked in chemicals immediately. Try not to contaminate anything else and remove yourself any any other victims from the contaminated area. If you get caustic chemicals on your skin, carefully remove any dust and rinse the area thoroughly with water for at least 20 minutes. If the burn involves the eye, use an eyewash station if available.  

All chemical burns are considered medical emergencies. If the burn is larger than three inches in diameter or very deep, or if it affects the face, eyes, groin, hands, feet, buttocks, or it is over a joint, get emergency care immediately. 

Go to the emergency room if the burn:

  • Involves the mouth, throat, or eyes
  • Is deep, involving all the layers of the skin
  • Encircles the arm or leg
  • Covers the hands, feet, face, groin, or buttocks 

If you don’t know the severity of the injury or whether the person is medically stable, call 911. When speaking with emergency medical personnel, be prepared to tell them as much as you know about:

  • The number of people injured and their location
  • How the injury occurred
  • Whether they can reach the victims or if the victims are trapped
  • The name, strength, and volume or quantity of chemicals causing the burns
  • The length of time of contact with the chemical

Provide a container of the chemical to emergency personnel if possible. 

Visit Family First ER

Family First ER is fully staffed and ready to treat burns 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Severe burns require immediate medical care to properly treat and prevent infection.

If you have any questions, contact Family First ER. We are happy to answer any questions about chemical burns.