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Detergent poisoning

Detergents are powerful cleaning products that may contain strong acids, alkalis, or phosphates. Cationic detergents are often used as germ-killing cleansers (antiseptics) in hospitals. Anionic detergents are sometimes used to clean carpeting. Detergent poisoning occurs when someone swallows cationic or anionic detergents.

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 your local emergency number (such as 911), or your 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.

Poisonous Ingredient

Poisonous ingredients include:

  • Damaging (corrosive) acids, including benzalkonium chloride
  • Simple soap

Symptoms

Detergent poisoning can cause symptoms in many parts of the body.

BLOOD

  • Severe change in acid level of blood (pH balance), which leads to damage in all of the body organs

EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT 

  • Loss of vision
  • Severe pain in the throat
  • Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue

GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM

HEART AND CIRCULATION SYSTEM

LUNGS AND AIRWAYS

  • Breathing difficulty (from breathing in the detergent)
  • Throat swelling (may also cause breathing difficulty)

SKIN

  • Burns
  • Holes (necrosis) in the skin or tissues underneath
  • Irritation

Home Care

Seek medical help right away. Do not make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional.

Before Calling Emergency

Get the following information:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Name of the product (and ingredients and strengths, if known)
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

Your 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. 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

The health care 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:

  • Breathing support, include a tube through the mouth into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator) 
  • Bronchoscopy: camera down the throat to see burns in the airways and lungs
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (heart tracing)
  • Endoscopy: camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach
  • Fluids by IV (through the vein)
  • Medicines to treat pain
  • Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation), perhaps every few hours for several days

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well the person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment is received. The faster the person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.

Swallowing such poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. The outcome depends on the extent of this damage. Damage continues to occur to the esophagus and stomach for several weeks after the poison is swallowed.

References

Blanc PD. Acute responses to toxic exposures. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 75.

Wax PM, Young A. Caustics. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 153.

Update Date 11/4/2015

Updated by: Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services/Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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