Potassium carbonate is a white powder used to make soap, glass, and other items. It is a chemical known as a caustic. If it contacts tissues, it can cause severe damage, such as burning or ulcers, on contact. This article discusses poisoning from swallowing or breathing in potassium carbonate.
This article is for information only. DO NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call the local emergency number (such as 911), or the local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
Potassium carbonate is found in:
- Some dishwasher soaps
- Some forms of potash (material from wood ashes that is used in fertilizers)
- Some home permanent-wave solutions
- Some soft soaps
Note: This list may not be all inclusive.
Symptoms of potassium carbonate poisoning include:
- Burns and severe pain in the mouth and throat
- Throat swelling, which leads to difficulty breathing
- Severe abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Rapid drop in blood pressure (shock)
- Vomiting, often bloody
Symptoms from getting potassium carbonate on the skin or in the eyes include:
- Severe pain
- Vision loss
Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.
If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water (at least 2 quarts or 1.9 liters) for at least 15 minutes.
If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a health care provider. DO NOT give water or milk if the person is having symptoms (such as vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness) that make it hard to swallow.
Before Calling Emergency
The following information is helpful for emergency assistance:
- The person's age, weight, and condition
- The name of the product (ingredients and strength, if known)
- The time it was swallowed
- The amount swallowed
However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.
Your local poison control center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The person may receive:
- Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
- Blood and urine tests
- Camera down the throat to see burns in the airway (bronchoscopy)
- Camera down the throat (endoscopy) to see burns in the food pipe (esophagus) and stomach
- Chest x-ray
- CT (computerized axial tomography or advanced imaging) scan
- ECG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
- Fluids through a vein (intravenous or IV)
- Medicines to treat symptoms
Note: Activated charcoal does not effectively treat (adsorb) sodium hydroxide.
For skin exposure, treatment may include:
- Surgical removal of burned skin (debridement)
- Transfer to a hospital that specializes in burn care
- Washing of the skin (irrigation), possibly every few hours for several days
The person may need to be admitted to a hospital for more treatment. Surgery may be needed if the esophagus, stomach, or intestine have developed holes (perforation) from exposure to the acid.
How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment was received. The faster a person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.
Swallowing poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Damage to the esophagus and stomach continues to occur for several weeks after the potassium carbonate was swallowed. Death from complications may occur up to several months later. Holes (perforation) in the esophagus and stomach may cause serious infections in both the chest and abdominal cavities, which may result in death.
Hoyte C. Caustics. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 148.
Review Date 1/1/2021
Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.