Chemical burns are burns from lye, acids, or other tissue-damaging chemicals splashed on the skin. Most of these accidents cause only first-degree burns. They usually peel like a sunburn over the following week. Chemical burns can occur in the home, at work or school, and as a result of accident or assault. Although few people in the United States die
after contact with chemicals in the home, many substances common in both living and storage areas can do serious harm.
Many chemical burns occur accidentally through misuse of products such as those for hair, skin, and nail care. Although injuries do occur 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.
Most chemical burns are caused by: Acids, such as battery acid, toilet bowl cleaners, or artificial nail primers; Alkalis, such as paint removers, lime, dishwasher powders, or lye. Alkalis usually cause more tissue damage than acids; Metals, such as molten metal compounds used in foundries; Hydrocarbons, such as gasoline or hot tar.
Most chemical burns occur on the face, eyes, and arms and legs. Usually a chemical burn will be relatively small and will require only outpatient treatment. Chemical burns can be deceiving, however. Some agents can cause deep tissue damage not readily apparent when you first look at it. Signs and symptoms of chemical burns include the following: Redness, irritation, or burning at the site of contact; Pain or numbness at the site of contact; Formation of blisters or black dead skin at the contact site; Vision changes if the chemical gets into your eyes; Cough or shortness of breath. In severe cases, you may develop any of the following: Low blood pressure; Faintness, weakness, dizziness; Shortness of breath or severe cough; Headache; Muscle twitching or seizures; Cardiac arrest or irregular heartbeat. Chemical burns can be very unpredictable. Death from a chemical injury, although rare, can occur.
Most people with chemical burns do not need to be admitted. Most can go home after arranging follow-up care with their doctor. In severe cases, however, they may need to be admitted to a hospital.
1. Make sure the cause of the burn has been removed. Try not to come in contact with it yourself. If the chemical is dry, brush off any excess. Avoid brushing it into your eyes. Remove any contaminated clothing or jewelry.
2. Flush the chemicals off the skin surface using cool running water for 15 minutes or more.
3. Treat the victim for shock if he or she appears faint, pale, or if there is shallow, rapid breathing.
4. Apply cool, wet compresses to relieve pain.
5. Wrap the burned area with a dry sterile dressing (if possible) or clean cloth. Protect the burned area from pressure and friction.
6. Minor chemical burns will generally heal without further treatment. However, if there is a second or third degree burn (the skin has blisters covering an area more than 3 inches in diameter) or if there is a systemic (overall body) reaction, get medical help immediately. In severe cases, don't leave the victim alone and watch carefully for systemic reactions.
Note: If chemical gets into the eye(s), the eye(s) should be flushed with water immediately. Continue to flush the eyes with running water for at least 15 minutes. After washing the eyes thoroughly, close the eyelids and cover them with loose, moist dressings. Get medical help immediately.
IV fluids may be needed to normalize blood pressure and heart rate. The IV access may also be used for any medications needed to treat pain or protect against infection. Decontamination will begin (likely water irrigation). You will be given any antidote to counteract the chemical, if appropriate. Antibiotics often are not needed for minor chemical burns. Wounds will be cleaned and bandaged with medicated creams and sterile wraps as needed. Consultation with other medical specialists may be done if indicated. Pain in a burn can often be severe. Adequate pain control will be addressed by your doctor. If there is any indication of breathing problems, a breathing tube may be placed in your airway to help.