Petroleum jelly, also known as soft paraffin, is a semisolid mixture of fatty substances that are made from petroleum. A common brand name is Vaseline. This article discusses what happens when someone swallows a lot of petroleum jelly or it gets in the eyes.
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 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.
Petroleum jelly (petrolatum) can be harmful if someone swallows it or it gets in the eyes.
Petroleum jelly is used in:
- Some skin care products (including Vaseline)
- Some eye lubricant ointments
Other products may also contain petroleum jelly.
These symptoms may occur from swallowing a large amount of petroleum jelly:
- Abdominal pain
- Irritation of the throat
- Shortness of breath
A large amount of petroleum jelly which gets in the eyes or nose, or is used on the skin, the eyes, nose, or skin may cause irritation of these tissues.
If petroleum jelly is aspirated (enters the breathing tube and lungs), symptoms may be more serious and may include:
- Difficulty breathing during activity
- Chest pain
- Coughing up blood
- Fever and chills
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
Stop using the product.
Do NOT make a person throw up unless poison control or a health care provider tells you to. Inhaling the substance during vomiting can lead to severe problems.
If the product is in the eyes, flush with large amounts of water for at least 15 minutes.
Before Calling Emergency
Have this information ready:
- Person's age, weight, and condition
- Name of product (as well as the ingredients and strength, if known)
- Time it was swallowed or used
- Amount swallowed or used
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 number 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
Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.
The provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated.
Tests that may be done include:
- Blood and urine tests
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
Treatment may include:
- Activated charcoal
- Airway and breathing support (serious cases only), including oxygen, tube through the mouth into the lungs and breathing machine
- Intravenous fluids (IV, or given through a vein)
- Medicine to treat symptoms
- Skin and eye washing if the product touched these tissues and they became irritated or swollen
Petroleum jelly is considered nontoxic. Recovery is likely. More serious lung problems may result with long-term exposure to inhaled petroleum jelly droplets.
Aronson JK. Paraffins. In: Aronson JK, ed. Meyler's Side Effects of Drugs. 16th ed. Waltham, MA: Elsevier; 2016:494-498.
Meehan TJ. Approach to the poisoned patient. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 139.
Review Date 7/5/2021
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.