While it is still best to take an ounce of prevention, these incidents happen when someone least expects it. The most anyone can do is to be well-versed on how to address the effects of the accident, minimizing the damage done if possible.
Chemical burns are especially something to be aware of. Even as these burns are typically not life-threatening, they are often more dangerous compared to thermal burns. Further damage can be prevented if immediate medical attention or first aid treatment for burns has been given.
Here is everything you need to know about treating chemical burns before medical help arrives.
What are Chemical Burns
Chemical burns happen as your body’s reaction when it comes into contact with a corrosive substance like acids and bases. Chemical burns often occur when the skin or the eyes are exposed to irritants. At home, these irritants are often in the form of common household items like bleach and high-power detergents. The workplace is especially distressing. There is a whole range of chemicals that can cause chemical burns. Anything from sulfuric acid, lye, lime, and silver nitrate can bring about occupational chemical burns which are more dangerous and can have extreme results.
Depending on the type of chemical that caused the injury, chemical burns are often not fatal and can be easily treated. However, in some cases, burns can be severe and may require immediate medical attention to prevent complications. One of the more extreme cases of chemical burns involves accidentally swallowing the chemical which can result in death if not given urgent care.
Different Types of Chemical Burns
Before administering first aid treatment for chemical burns, the severity and depth of the injury must first be identified.
Superficial Burns (First-Degree Burns)
First-degree burns, or more presently referred to as superficial burns, are injuries that affect only the epidermis or the outer layer of the skin.
You can tell that a chemical burn is superficial or of first-degree if the site of the burn is red, dry, painful, but with no blisters.
Superficial burns only take 3 to 6 days to heal. Because the burn only affects the epidermis or the top layer of the skin, there is no long-term damage or scarring that can take place on the skin. However, you will notice a change in the skin color, which can either turn lighter or darker as a long-term effect.
Superficial Partial-Thickness Injuries (Mild Second-Degree Burns)
Superficial partial-thickness injuries are a type of a second-degree burn that causes damage up to the second layer of the skin, or the dermis.
A chemical burn is considered a superficial partial-thickness injury if it gets very painful whenever air brushes off the affected area, or there is a change in air temperature. You will also notice that the burn is very red and is oozing with fluid. There is also the occasional presence of blisters. If you press the site of the burn, it will turn white.
The healing period of superficial partial-thickness burns takes at least 7 to 21 days or roughly one week to three weeks. Scars do not form in place of the burn once it has healed. Yet, like first-degree burns, the affected area can become lighter or darker as a permanent result.
Deep Partial Thickness Injuries (Severe Second-Degree Burns)
Deep partial-thickness injuries are a more severe type of second-degree burns. These injuries go deeper into the skin layers.
Deep partial-thickness burns are painful when applied with pressure. You can set this apart from superficial partial-thickness by pressing on the site of the burn, as these burns do not turn white. Blisters always form in these burns.
Healing usually takes more than 21 days. Because these burns destroy the deeper layers of the skin, permanent scars can take place after the healing period.
Full Thickness Injuries (Third-Degree Burns)
With full-thickness injuries, the burned area is dry and can look anything from a waxy white to a leathery gray. The site of the burn does not hurt nor have any sensations of pain as the nerve endings are completely severed.
Full-thickness burns are considered a medical emergency and must be given urgent medical attention. These burns require surgical treatment to heal as they cannot heal on their own. Severe scarring can also develop afterward.
The most extreme type of chemical burn, fourth-degree burns are serious, destroying not only the layers of the skin but extending the damage towards the underlying tissues, bones, joints, and even muscles.
Fourth-degree burns can appear charred with the bone and some muscle tissue possibly exposed.
Fourth-degree burns are not painful because nerve endings are already impaired at that point, however, that fact makes fourth-degree burns a serious concern.
Just like full-thickness burns, fourth-degree burns are viewed as a medical emergency and treatment must be sought as soon as possible to avoid more complications.
Apart from the extreme damage of the burns on the skin and bones, the patient can also experience extreme shock due to the intense inflammatory response of the body coming to terms with the large extent of the burns. Because of this, major organs like the heart can also suffer from inflammation.
Causes and Risk Factors
Almost any kind of acid and base chemicals can cause burns on the skin, but here are the most common items and products that cause chemical burns at home and in school.
- Laundry detergent
- Car batteries
- Drain and toilet cleaners
- Metal cleaners
In the industrial setting, occupational hazards in handling chemicals exist in every corner. These chemicals are typically in the form of:
- Sulfuric acid
- Hydrochloric acid
- Silver nitrate
Infants, babies, and the elderly face great risk from experiencing chemical burns. Moreover, young children who are curious in exploring their surroundings are also susceptible to chemical exposure, as oftentimes, they are unaware of what they have on their hands.
People whose work entails handling chemicals are also more prone to getting chemical burns.
Symptoms of Chemical Burns
Chemical burns come in a range of symptoms. The most common symptoms of chemical burns that you need to watch out for may include:
- Redness and irritation of the affected area
- A burning sensation
- Pain and, in severe cases, numbness of the affected area
- An impaired or blurred vision if the eyes have been exposed to the chemicals
If you suspect that someone has accidentally swallowed a chemical, these are the symptoms that you need to look out for:
- Headaches and dizziness
- Irregular heartbeats
- Shortness of breath
- Twitching of the muscles
- A low blood pressure
- Cardiac arrest
Once you have seen these signs and symptoms, bring the person immediately to the hospital or call emergency services.
First Aid Treatment for Chemical Burns
Most chemical burns, especially the mild ones, can be given a simple first aid-treatment. The more severe cases, however, entail following a strict set of safety measures to avert further problems.
Chemical Burns Rinsed with Water
Most chemical burns require being cleaned and rinsed with water to rid the skin of the chemical presence.
In doing so, place the affected area under running water for at least 20 minutes. While doing so, try to remove any clothing or jewelry that brushes against the burn so that it won’t get infected. Continue to run water on it if the burning sensation persists.
If the burn is caused by hydrofluoric acid, which is a highly corrosive acid, make sure to rinse it with lots of water. Apply calcium gluconate as a temporary treatment, but bring to the hospital for immediate medical supervision.
Chemical Burns Not Rinsed with Water
Not all chemical burns must be rinsed with water. Depending on the type of chemical that caused the problem, some burns can become worse when it comes in contact with water.
If these chemicals caused the burn, refrain from using water to clean the burn.
Carbolic acid or phenol does not sit well with water. To alleviate burns caused by this acid, use isopropyl or rubbing alcohol to remove traces of the acid on the skin before you clean the burn with water.
Sulfuric acid on the skin is cleansed with a mild, soapy solution, given that the burns are not severe. Leaving it on the skin can cause irritation, so it is best to rinse it using this solution.
Dry powder when mixed with water is a bad idea, as it could catalyze a liquid that burns. Make sure to brush the dry powder off the skin first, then rinse it with water for 20 minutes.
Metal compounds should be covered with mineral oil before cleaning with water.
When the chemical is exposed to the eye, immediately flush it out with lots of water to lessen the possibility of critical eye damage.
Treatments of Chemical Burns
Superficial and superficial partial-thickness burns can easily be treated at home, given that the surface area of the damage is only small and less than 3 inches in diameter.
Burns under these categories should be cleaned immediately. Rinse the burn site quickly under running water for 10 to 20 minutes. Lightly wash it with a mild soap. If the affected area is the eyes, rinse it thoroughly with water for 20 minutes, but make sure to seek a medical checkup afterward to verify that there has been no further injury.
However, specific conditions surrounding the burn must still be considered. If the burns are serious, go to the hospital right away.
Here are some situations where a burn is considered serious:
- The burn is more than 3 inches in diameter
- The burn occurs on the face, hand, feet, groin, or buttocks area
- The brain is on the knee or any other major joint
- The pain is persistent and is not alleviated by over-the-counter medications
- The patient is showing signs of shock, like breath shortness, dizziness, and low blood pressure
Burns that are classified as deep partial thickness, full thickness, and fourth degree must be given urgent medical attention as these burns are prone to infections and other complications.
Treatment for these severe chemical burns may include:
- Skin replacement or grafting
- Pain management
- Cosmetic surgery
- Occupational therapy, for redeveloping motor skills if burns happened on the extremities
Complications of Chemical Burns
Chemical burns have a high risk of getting infected due to their exposed nature. It is crucial to exercise caution to evade complications that can cause more problems.
Some complications that can stem from chemical burns include bacterial infection that can trigger sepsis or bloodstream infection. This happens when the burn area has been exposed to open air for a long time, and dirt may have gotten into the wound.
Extreme cases of chemical burns can trigger shock on the person. Because the body is having an inflammatory response to the chemical burns, fluid loss can occur resulting in a low blood volume or hypovolemia and a deadly drop in blood pressure or hypothermia.
In the case of burn shock, other major organs like the heart, lungs, brain, and kidneys are also affected due to fluid loss and hypothermia.
Prevention of Chemical Burns
Chemical burns can be avoided by following proper measures and safety protocols when it comes to handling and storing chemical substances. These include:
- Storing chemicals properly after use
- Keeping chemicals out of reach of children
- Making sure that chemicals are used in a well-ventilated location or open space if possible
- Wearing protective clothing and eye protection when using chemicals
- Keeping chemicals in their original containers with the warning labels still readable
- Avoiding the use of chemicals unless it is absolutely necessary
- Keeping the chemicals away from food and drinks
- Making sure that the chemicals you buy are contained in a safe and secure jar or canister, and are sealed tightly
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take for chemical burns to heal?
The healing period largely depends on what kind of chemical burn has occurred to you.Generally, superficial burns, or first-degree burns, are the fastest to heal as these burns have the least damage and only affect the epidermis or the outer layer of the skin. It only takes 3 to 6 days to recover from superficial burns, and these burns usually heal on their own.
Superficial partial-thickness injuries are mild second-degree burns that take about 7 to 21 days to heal. Deep partial-thickness injuries are severe second-degree burns that heal in over 3 weeks.
Full-thickness injuries and fourth-degree burns require medical surgery to heal and usually develop scars. There is no telling how much time it takes for these burns to heal as each case is different.
Always make sure that you are doing the proper after-care steps in taking care of your wound. This helps the burn wound heal faster.
Are chemical burn marks permanent?
Does burn discoloration go away?
Do chemical burns scar?
Superficial and superficial partial thickness chemical burns do not usually scar. However, some discoloration forms in the site of the burn once it has healed.
Deep partial-thickness, full thickness, and fourth-degree burns definitely create permanent scarring in the affected area.
Are chemical burns itchy?
What is the treatment for full thickness and fourth-degree burns?
Full-thickness injuries and fourth-degree burns cannot be treated at home due to the seriousness and the extent of the damage. Victims of these burns should be taken to the hospital quickly. These chemical burns should be given urgent medical care by the doctors.
Typically, these burns can only be treated through skin replacement or skin graft, and cosmetic surgery.
What is a skin graft?
Skin graft or skin replacement involves a surgical procedure where a piece of healthy skin is removed from an area of the body and transplanted to another area of the body.
A skin graft is a common treatment for severe chemical burns.