Oils and Automotive Products

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 hundreds of calls a year from worried parents whose children drank a hydrocarbon-containing product. These products can potentially cause death and every parent should understand how.

The word hydrocarbon refers to the chemical structure of oils removed from petroleum through a purification process. They may also appear on the product label as "petroleum distillates."

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you suspect someone has swallowed any of these products.

Common hydrocarbon-containing products

Often found in garages, basements and sheds include, hydrocarbon-containing products include:

  • 3-in-one oil
  • Clipper oil
  • Gasoline
  • Insecticides
  • Kerosene
  • Lamp oil (including tiki torches)
  • Lemon furniture polish
  • Lighter fluid
  • Motor oils
  • Paint thinners
  • Pine oil cleaners
  • Sewing machine oil

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.

This class of substances is concerning if someone aspirates it (inhales it into the lungs), ingests (swallows it), or gets it on the skin or in the eyes. Other automotive products can also cause harm if swallowed.

Aspiration of hydrocarbons

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 force a person to vomit when a hydrocarbon is swallowed because this increases the chances of the hydrocarbon getting 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 constant annoying cough, trouble breathing, 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 potential death.

Sometimes when a hydrocarbon is aspirated, the coughing does not begin until much later. It is possible for symptoms to be delayed for 6-24 hours.

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you suspect someone has swallowed any of these products.

If symptoms occur your child will need to go to the emergency department where the staff will listen to his or her lungs and give oxygen as needed. A chest X-ray will be done. If signs of pneumonia appear on the X-ray, your child will be admitted to the hospital for further observation.

Ingestion of hydrocarbons

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 force a person to vomit because you don't want to increase the risk of aspiration. Just offer a sip of water or juice to drink.

Call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222 if you suspect someone has swallowed any of these products.

The Poison Control Center will advise you how to monitor your child at home for 24 hours to be sure the signs of aspiration do not occur.

Skin and eye exposure

Hydrocarbons leave the skin red and raw and can cause burns if not removed quickly. Pour lukewarm water mixed with a mild soap over the affected area of skin for 15 minutes. If blisters are present, an evaluation by a physician will be necessary.

Hydrocarbons cause severe eye irritation and possibly corneal abrasions, which are scratches on the protective covering of the eye. Rinse the eyes for 20 minutes with large amounts of lukewarm water. If blurry vision, pain or discomfort continues, obtain an eye exam.

Automobile products

Windshield washer fluid, dry gas and antifreeze contain methanol and ethylene glycol, which are extremely dangerous to both humans and animals. A small child can be severely poisoned by taking as little as one swallow.

Antifreeze has a sweet smell and taste, which increases the likelihood of large amounts being swallowed by young children and animals.

To prevent such accidents, be sure to keep these products stored away from children and pets, remove any spilled product immediately and repair any leaks.

If your child swallows any of these products, contact the Poison Control Center immediately at 1-800-222-1222.


Next Steps
Girl getting a hug from toddler sister.

What to Expect When You Call

When you call the Poison Control Center, we will ask you a series of questions. Here's what we'll need to know so we can help.

Boy smiling

Poisoning Resources for Professionals

Find treatment tips for poisoning events, clinical pathways, information about toxicology assessments, and more.