One of the most upsetting warning labels a parent may read states "harmful or fatal if swallowed." All hydrocarbon-containing products carry this warning and the Poison Control Center receives an average of four calls a day from worried parents whose children drank a hydrocarbon-containing product. These products can cause fatalities and every parent should understand how.
The word hydrocarbon refers to the chemical structure of oils refined from petroleum. They may also appear on the product label as "petroleum distillates." Common hydrocarbon-containing products include gasoline, kerosene, mineral oils, paint thinners and pine oils.
The main reason for concern when a hydrocarbon is swallowed is that the child will choke on it and breathe it into the lungs. This is called aspiration. Hydrocarbons have a higher chance than other substances of being aspirated because they are oily and very slippery. Never induce vomiting when a hydrocarbon is swallowed because this increases the chances of the hydrocarbon slipping into the airway.
Once a hydrocarbon enters the lungs it spreads very quickly, coating the air passages and irritating the tissues. In the lungs this spreading behavior is very dangerous, causing a persistent, annoying cough, shortness of breath, grunting or wheezing. There may also be chills and fever. A complication from aspirating hydrocarbons is chemical pneumonia. When chemical pneumonia is not treated it can be life-threatening. This is why the labels on hydrocarbon-containing products warn of a potential fatality.
Sometimes when a hydrocarbon is aspirated, the coughing does not begin until much later. It is possible for symptoms to be delayed for six to 24 hours. The Poison Control Center will monitor for delayed onset of symptoms by doing follow-up calls one, six and 24 hours after the ingestion. If the symptoms occur the patient will need to go to the emergency room where the staff will listen to his lungs and give oxygen as needed. A chest x-ray will be done. If signs of pneumonia appear on the x-ray, the patient will be admitted to the hospital for further observation.
If a hydrocarbon misses the airway and reaches the stomach, there is very little risk of harm. The stomach does not absorb hydrocarbons. In the worst case, swallowing hydrocarbons causes nausea, mild stomach discomfort and belching. The hydrocarbon will pass harmlessly through the bowels. Aspirating hydrocarbons causes more problems than swallowing them. Do not induce vomiting because you don't want to increase the risk of aspiration. Just offer a sip of water or juice to drink. The poison center will monitor the patient at home for 24 hours to be sure the signs of aspiration do not occur.
Hydrocarbons leave the skin red and raw and can cause burns if not removed quickly. Irrigate the skin for 15 minutes with lukewarm water using a mild soap. If blisters are present an evaluation by a physician will be necessary. Hydrocarbons cause severe eye irritation and possibly corneal abrasions. Rinse the eyes for 20 minutes with large amounts of lukewarm water. If blurry vision, pain or discomfort persist obtain an eye exam.
Hydrocarbons may be safely used in the home when the instructions on the label are closely followed and the products are kept out of the reach of children.
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