Chemical burns can happen if you come into contact with a harsh substance such as bleach, battery acid or disinfectants. People who work with chemicals for their jobs are more at risk of chemical burns. Young children are also at risk, since they may accidentally touch or swallow household chemicals.
A chemical burn is damage to tissue on your body due to a harsh or corrosive substance. You can get chemical burns on your skin, eyes or inside of your body. Most chemical burns are the result of accidentally spilling a chemical on yourself. But it’s also possible to swallow chemicals or get exposed to them in other ways.
Chemical burns range from mild to severe. Mild chemical burns usually heal quickly, but severe chemical burns can cause permanent tissue damage, scarring or death. Chemical burns require immediate medical treatment.
Anyone who works with chemicals is at risk for chemical burns, including:
It’s important to note that children (especially toddlers) are at a high risk for burns caused by household chemical products. They may accidentally touch or swallow detergents, bleach or cleaning products.
Between 2005 and 2014, about 3% of all adults admitted to burn centers in the U.S. had chemical burns. One study shows that, over a 17-year period, about 40,000 children (or 2,300 children per year) were admitted to the emergency department with a chemical burn from a household cleaning product.
When harsh chemicals come into contact with your skin, eyes or any tissue in your body, they can destroy cells. The damage may go past the superficial layers of skin or tissue and cause deep damage. Chemical burns can be far more serious than thermal (heat) burns. Chemicals often stay on your skin for long periods of time, eating away at your tissue.
There are a lot of substances that can cause chemical burns. Some of the most common include:
Chemical burns on your skin may cause:
Chemical burns in your eyes may cause:
Chemical burns from ingestion (swallowing) may cause:
Your healthcare provider can usually diagnose chemical burns on your skin by examining the size, depth and other characteristics of the burn. They may also use other tests to diagnose burns on your skin or in your eyes or from swallowing a chemical, including:
Chemical burns require immediate treatment. Call 911 and then:
Then, get to a hospital. The American Burn Association recommends that anyone with a chemical burn should seek care at a burn center or call the National Poison Control Hotline (1-800-222-1222) immediately for information on treatment. A burn center is a unit of a hospital dedicated to burn treatment. If you go to the emergency department, they may refer you to a burn center.
Once you arrive at the hospital, your healthcare team will:
If you have a severe burn, you may need surgery to remove the burned portion of your skin. Some people need a skin graft. A surgeon takes healthy skin from elsewhere on your body and attaches it to the burned area. Surgery can also repair perforations in your gastrointestinal tract.
Reduce your risk of chemical burns by taking the proper safety precautions:
Most mild chemical burns heal without leaving permanent scars. However, long-term effects of severe chemical burns may include:
Seek help right away for any type of chemical burn. If you have a burn that’s healing, contact your doctor if the burn:
You may want to ask your healthcare provider:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Chemical burns can happen if you work with chemicals or other harsh substances for your job. People, especially children, can also get chemical burns if they accidentally touch or swallow certain household chemicals. You should seek medical attention from your healthcare provider for any chemical burn, even if it seems mild. Unlike heat burns, chemical burns can continue causing tissue damage even after you come into contact with them. Immediate treatment is essential to prevent scarring or complications.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/04/2022.
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