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Chemical burns

3-minute read

Many chemicals that are commonly used at home, school or work can cause serious burns to the skin. If you suspect you or someone else has a chemical burn, it is important to wash the chemical off as quickly as possible with a large quantity of water.

Many chemical burns are small, but they can be deeper than they look. It depends on the chemical, how strong it is, and how long it is in contact with the skin.

All chemical burns should be treated as a medical emergency. If you suspect a chemical burn, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

For help and advice about poison, call the poisons information hotline on 13 11 26 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week).

Chemical burn first aid

If the chemical is on the skin, wash it off immediately with a large quantity of water, continuing for 20 minutes.

Remove contaminated clothing or footwear – but do not pick off anything that is stuck to the skin. Make sure the person giving the first aid doesn’t come into contact with the chemical.

If the chemical is in the eye, tilt the head to the side and protect the other eye. Then gently flush the eye with cool water for 20 minutes.

Cover the burn with a sterile dressing that won’t stick to the skin.

Types of chemical burn

Most chemical burns are caused by either strong acids or strong bases, which can be found in products such as:

  • bleach
  • concrete mix
  • drain or toilet bowl cleaners
  • metal cleaners
  • pool chlorinators
  • phosphorous (found in fireworks and fertilizers)
  • petrol

Chemical burns often happen by accident, but they can also result from an assault, self-harm or a suicide attempt. They are most likely to affect the face, eyes, limbs, hands or feet. Chemicals can also burn you inside if they are swallowed.

Chemical burn symptoms

A chemical burn is similar to a burn caused by heat. Symptoms of a chemical burn include:

  • redness and burning at the site
  • pain or numbness
  • blisters
  • blackened skin

A chemical burn to the eye can cause vision problems, and a chemical burn to the lungs can cause coughing or shortness of breath.

If the burn is very severe, symptoms can include:

Chemical burn diagnosis

Chemical burns should always be seen by a doctor, who will check your airways, breathing and circulation. They will also ask you for as much information as possible about the type of chemical that caused the burn. They will ask how much there was, how long it was in contact with your skin, and what has already been done to care for the burn.

Chemical burn treatment

If you have a minor chemical burn, you probably won’t be admitted to hospital. You should follow your doctor’s instructions to keep the wound clean and prevent it from drying out. Your doctor will also advise you on appropriate pain relief and what creams and dressings are to be applied.

More serious burns will need treatment in hospital to control pain, prevent infection and manage any problems with breathing or circulation caused by the burn. The wound will be carefully monitored.

Chemical burn prevention

  • Always read and follow the instructions when using products containing chemicals.
  • Always wear safety gloves and eye protection when handling chemicals.
  • Take note of any warnings on the package and make sure you understand them.
  • Always wash your hands after using a product containing chemicals.
  • Make sure all containers containing chemicals are labelled.
  • Always store chemicals in a safe place, out of the reach of children.
  • Have first aid supplies on hand to treat a chemical burn.

More information

For help and advice about chemical burns, contact the NSW Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26.

For chemical burns first aid, download the St John factsheet, Burns First Management Guide.

Last reviewed: April 2018

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