This article discusses the harmful effects from swallowing or breathing in (sniffing) products to remove paint, lacquer, or varnish.
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.
Paint, lacquer, and varnish removers may contain the following poisonous ingredients:
- Benzyl alcohol
- Formic acid
- Methyl alcohol
- Methylene hydrochloride
Paint, lacquer, and varnish removers are sold under various brand names.
Paint lacquer and varnish remover poisoning can cause symptoms in various parts of the body.
AIRWAYS AND LUNGS
- Blood in the lungs or coughing blood
- Breathing difficulty (from inhalation)
- Fluid in the lungs
- Throat swelling (may also cause breathing difficulty)
- Rapid, shallow breathing
EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT
- Severe pain in the throat
- Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
- Vision loss
STOMACH AND INTESTINES
- Abdominal pain -- severe
- Bloody stools
- Burns of the esophagus (food pipe)
- Vomiting, possibly with blood
- Kidney failure
HEART AND BLOOD
- Low blood pressure -- develops rapidly (shock)
- Severe change in the level of acid in the blood (pH balance) -- leads to the failure of many organs
- Necrosis (holes) in the skin or underlying tissues
- Coma (decreased level of consciousness and lack of responsiveness)
- Convulsions (seizures)
- Dizziness (from sniffing)
- Feeling of being drunk (euphoria)
Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care provider.
If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a provider.
If the person breathed in the poison, immediately move them to fresh air.
Before Calling Emergency
Get the following information:
- Person's age, weight, and condition
- Name of product (ingredients and strength, if known)
- Time it was swallowed
- Amount swallowed
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
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 as appropriate. The person may receive:
- Blood and urine tests
- Breathing support, including oxygen through a tube into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator)
- Bronchoscopy -- camera down the throat to look for burns in the airways and lungs (if the poison was aspirated)
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (heart tracing)
- Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to look for burns in the esophagus and the stomach
- Fluids through a vein (by IV)
- Medicine to reverse the effect of the poison and treat symptoms
- Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
- Tube through the mouth into the stomach to aspirate (suck out) the stomach. This is done only when the person gets medical care within 30 to 45 minutes of the poisoning, and a very large amount of the substance has been swallowed
- Washing of the skin (irrigation) -- perhaps every few hours for several days
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 such poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Burns in the airway or gastrointestinal tract can lead to tissue death. This may result in infection, shock, and death, even several months after substance was swallowed. Scar tissue in the affected areas can lead to long-term problems with breathing, swallowing, and digestion.
Paint remover poisoning
Hamm LL, DuBose TD. Disorders of acid-base balance. In: Yu ASL, Chertow GM, Luyckx VA, Marsden PA, Skorecki K, Taal MW, eds. Brenner and Rector's The Kidney. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 16.
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.
Nelson ME. Toxic alcohols. In: Walls RM, Hockberger RS, Gausche-Hill M, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 141.
Review Date 11/13/2021
Updated by: Jesse Borke, MD, CPE, FAAEM, FACEP, Attending Physician at Kaiser Permanente, Orange County, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.