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Chemical burns


Corrosive chemical warning signChemical burns are far more common than one might imagine. There are chemicals surrounding us at work and also in the home. The primary treatment for chemical burn is prevention. Wear the appropriate protective gear whenever using harsh agents and immediately call poison control if there is contact with your skin.

Chemical burns can be roughly divided into those that are caused by acids and those that are caused by bases or alkalis.


Acid burns

Pool acid

Acids used to treat swimming pools can cause severe tissue damage.

Acid burns should be immediately treated by flushing with copious amounts of water. The key is to have running water over the burned area; do not simply submerge in a tub, sink, or bucket.

There are rarely any other emergency treatments except in the unusual case of hydrofluoric acid burns. They should be treated as quickly as possible with topical calcium gluconate. This treatment will alleviate the pain and prevent further tissue destruction by the acidic material.

As with thermal burns, the ongoing treatment is to wash the wound daily to keep it clean and then place a bandage with a topical burn cream such as bacitracin. Often, acid burns will heal without surgery, but skin grafts are sometimes needed to get the wound healed and to obtain the best cosmesis and function of the burned area.

Alkali (base) burns

Alkali or base burns are more concerning as the tissue destruction is deep and ongoing. The initial treatment is the same: copious flushing of the burned area. There is little to do to stop the deep tissue destruction until the body can fight it off and try to begin to heal the area.

Often the area in question is small enough that the bulk of the treatment can be completed as an outpatient, but several weeks are sometimes required before the wound heals on its own, or possibly requires surgery and coverage with a skin graft or skin flaps.

Oven and drain cleaners

Many oven cleaners and drain cleaners contain caustic alkaline products.