Irritating Chemicals (Caustics)

Irritating chemicals, called caustics, are ingredients that can cause severe burns or injuries. Most caustics tend to be highly acidic or basic, depending on the ingredient’s pH (a scale that determines whether a substance is acidic like lemon juice or basic like baking soda.

There are different ways we can expose our bodies to caustics.  There are some caustic tips to be aware of to help protect you or your family when you may be exposed to common strong caustics.

  • Ingestion

    Swallowing a strong acid or base may cause injury to the lips, mouth, throat and stomach. Burns to the lips or mouth may result in swelling of the lips and white, patchy areas inside the mouth.

    Sometimes the inside of the mouth may appear normal even though the throat or stomach may have been burned. Such "skipped burns" are more common with liquid products than solid products (e.g., powders) because liquids tend to have less contact time with the mouth.

    Symptoms include:

    • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
    • Drooling
    • Cramps
    • Severe vomiting (with or without blood)

    If your child has ingested a caustic substance, follow the steps below and call the Poison Control Center.

    1. Rinse the mouth with a little water or milk to rid it of any caustic that may still be there.
    2. Look for symptoms of injury including visible burns in the mouth or the signs and symptoms listed above.
    3. If there is any sign of injury, take your child to the emergency department immediately.
    4. NEVER make your child vomit. Bringing up the caustic may cause more injury.
    5. NEVER try to “neutralize” the acid or base by making your child ingest another ingredient. This combination can create a heat reaction, which might bring on further injury.
  • Skin contact

    Skin contact with caustics can cause mild to severe burns, depending on the strength of the product, the amount splashed on the skin and the duration of contact with the skin.

    There are three types of burns you can get from caustic agents:

    • Mild (first-degree) burns involve the outer skin layer and may result in redness and irritation — much like the common sunburn.
    • Moderate (second-degree) burns affect the deeper layers of the skin and may cause blisters in addition to redness and irritation.
    • Severe (third-degree) burns extend beyond the layers of the skin to underlying tissue and, in addition to blisters, may result in charring and permanent scarring.

    If a caustic substance comes into contact with your child's skin, follow the steps below and call the Poison Control Center.

    1. Flush the exposed skin areas with large amounts of lukewarm water and soap.
    2. Apply a cool compress for 10-minute periods. Do not put ice directly against your child's skin.
    3. Go to the nearest emergency department if blisters develop.
    4. NEVER try to neutralize the burn with another ingredient.
  • Inhalation

    Breathing in caustic products may cause irritation of the nose, throat, airways, and stomach. Severe exposures may even result in burns to the airways.

    Symptoms of inhaling caustics may include:

    • Discomfort in the nose and/or throat

    • Coughing

    • Difficulty breathing

    • Chest tightness

    • Nausea

    • Vomiting

    People most susceptible to medical complications are those who inhale caustic fumes in an enclosed area for a long time and those with a pre-existing airway disease, such as asthma, bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

    If your child has inhaled a caustic prduct, follow the steps below and call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

    1. Leave the area of exposure.
    2. Have your child inhale steam or humidified air for 20 minutes. Repeat as needed.
    3. Have your child gargle with lukewarm water and drink clear fluids.
    4. Go to the nearest emergency room if symptoms persist despite home treatment, and/or if your child has a medical history of airway disease.
  • Eye exposure

    A caustic product splashed in the eye may cause pain, redness, blurry vision, and abrasions or burns to the protective coating of the eye. Fumes from a caustic product may also irritate the eyes.

    In case of a caustic eye exposure, immediately call the Poison Control Center or your chid's physician, then follow the steps below.

    1. Immediately flood your child's eyes with lukewarm water for 20 minutes, and then take your child to the nearest hospital for an eye exam.
    2. Do not use eye washes or compresses — they are not effective.
    3. NEVER try to neutralize the burn with another ingredient!
  • Caustic tips
    • Beware of ingredients that include: acid, lye (sodium/calcium hydroxide), phosphates or lime.
    • Use caustic products only in well-ventilated areas.
    • Do not mix caustics with any other household products. Dangerous chemical reactions may occur.
    • Wear protective gloves and goggles when handling strong caustics.
    • Read and follow the manufacturer’s directions/precautions on product labels.
    • Be mindful of children and pets when caustic products are in use.
    • Store caustic products in locked cabinets.
    • Contact a physician or the Poison Control Center if any exposure to caustics occurs.
  • Examples of strong caustics
    • Oven cleaners
    • Drain openers
    • Rust removers
    • Toilet bowl cleaners
    • Mildew stain removers
    • Industrial cleaning products
    • Cement
    • Soldering flux
    • Battery contents (household and car)
    • Hair perms and relaxers

Reviewed by The Poison Control Center on October 01, 2013