Some of the most dangerous household products are those containing caustic ingredients. Exposure to caustics can cause severe burns through ingestion, inhalation or contact with the eyes and skin.
There are two types of caustics:
The "pH" measures a product's acidity or alkalinity based on a scale from 1 to 13. A pH of 1 to 2 indicates a strong acid; a pH of 12-13 indicates a strong base; a pH of 7 indicates a neutral product — neither acid nor base — like water.
The stronger an acid or base, the more capable it is of causing severe burns upon contact. The likelihood of your child getting serious burns depends on the pH, the amount of the product involved in an exposure and the duration of her contact with the product. Your child's physician or the poison control center will help you determine how seriously she was exposed.
Swallowing an acid or base may cause injury to the lips, mouth, throat and stomach. Burns to the lips or mouth may result in swelling of the lips and white, patchy areas inside the mouth.
Sometimes the inside of the mouth may appear normal even though the throat or stomach may have been burned. Such "skipped burns" are more common with liquid products than granular products (e.g., powders) because liquids tend to have less contact time with the mouth.
Cramps and severe vomiting, occasionally with blood.
If your child ingests a caustic substance, call your poison control center or your child's physician immediately. Based on the type and amount of substance your child ingested and her medical history, you may be instructed to:
Never induce vomiting. Vomiting will re-expose the throat and mouth to the caustic substance, increasing her risk for developing burns
Never attempt to neutralize a caustic exposure. You may have learned that combining an acid with a base yields a neutral product (pH of 7). While this may work in a test tube, in an actual human exposure an acid-base combination can cause a heat reaction which may result in further injury.
Skin contact with caustics can cause mild to severe burns depending on the strength of the product, the amount splashed on the skin and the duration of contact with the skin.
Based on the type and amount of substance that came in contact with your child and her medical history, you may be instructed to:
As with ingestions, never attempt to neutralize a caustic skin exposure.
A caustic product splashed in the eye may cause pain, redness, blurry vision, and abrasions or burns to the cornea, the protective coating of the eye. Fumes from a caustic product may also irritate the eyes. To treat such exposures immediately flood your child's eyes with tepid water for 20 minutes, then take her to the nearest hospital for an eye exam. Do not use eye washes or compresses, they are not effective. Never neutralize the exposure, as it may worsen the injury. Learn more about eye exposures.
Breathing in caustic products may cause irritation of the nose, throat, airways, and stomach. Severe exposures may even result in burns to the airways. Symptoms of inhaling caustics may include discomfort in the nose and/or throat, coughing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, nausea, and vomiting.
The children most susceptible to medical complications are those who inhale caustic fumes in an enclosed area for a long time and those with pre-existing airway disease, such as asthma or bronchitis. In case of a caustic inhalation, immediately call your poison control center or physician. Based on the type and amount of substance your child inhaled and her medical history, you may be instructed to:
Toilet bowl cleaners
Mildew stain removers
Industrial cleaning products
Battery contents (household and car)
Hair perms and relaxers
Automatic dishwashing detergents
Look for these words when purchasing household cleaning and personal care products — these tell you the product is caustic:
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