Chemical burns are caused by a variety of toxic agents that damage the skin. The most common examples are acids, pipe cleaners and gasoline or paint thinning compounds. Weaker chemicals do not cause a burn right away and in such cases the condition is not easy to notice. The symptoms of chemical burns, like red skin and pain, can take hours to emerge, just like in the case of normal sunburn.
The toxic agents, usually reactive acids or bases, cause chemical burns when in contact with the skin. While acids are usually considered to be harmful, the alkaline bases are almost equally dangerous. The caustic substances cause a harmful chemical reaction on the skin surface but can also lead to internal burns when ingested, damaging internal organs.
Swallowing a chemical compound can be very dangerous, leading to burns or cuts inside the mouth. In order to avoid severe consequences, you should go immediately to the nearest hospital or poison control center.
Chemical burns have various symptoms, which usually depend on their specific cause and location. Obviously, the effects of a burn on the skin are very different from internal burns. The exact symptoms are influenced by a number of factors.
As already noted, one of the most important is if the chemical was in contact with the skin, swallowed or inhaled. When in contact with the skin, any open wounds or cuts can make the symptoms a lot worse. The duration of contact with the toxic compound is also important, as well as the exact locations, since some areas of the skin are more sensitive than others. The nature of the chemical and its amount and concentration also have a direct effect on the burn. Chemicals also have different states and can be solids, liquids or toxic gases.
You can't compare for example the effects of an acid burn caused by skin contact with the ones of swallowing an alkaline compound, which will lead to burns inside the stomach and on the route to it.
Regardless of these factors, chemical burns generally share a number of common symptoms. Acids usually kill skin cells and the area can turn black after a while. Otherwise, the affected skin is red and can be irritated or even burnt. The skin can become insensitive (numb) or painful when touched. If the chemicals enter the eyes, they might cause altered eyesight or even temporary or permanent blindness.
Ingesting toxic compounds has other symptoms and can affect internal organs. Some of the most common symptoms are: headaches, rapid or irregular heartbeat, reduced blood pressure, heart problems including a heart attack, seizures, nausea, dizziness, muscular spasms, cough or difficult breathing.
The first thing to do after a chemical burn is to clear the toxic agent from the skin and ensure that the area is allowed to start healing without any source of irritation. If the extent of the burns is limited, you can treat them yourself. If the burns are serious or if they cover a large surface, you should go see a doctor. Deep burns or very extensive ones can be extremely dangerous and require immediate medical attention. The burns can also have serious side effects that need special treatment, the symptoms include fainting, weakness, dizziness, fatigue or a general sensation of sickness.
Compounds that cause chemical burns on the skin are of an acid or alkaline nature. The strong chemicals with industrial applications are the most dangerous but common household products can cause burns as well if they stay in contact with the skin for a long time. As soon as you notice a chemical substance on the skin, use plenty of cold water in order to clean it off, this should always be the first step.
The same procedure is valid in the case of solid state chemicals, just brush them off before cleaning with water. A smart thing to do is to immediately remove any clothes or accessories from the area, since they can be already contaminated. You should proceed with rinsing the burnt area with cold water, even if the process is painful. Don't stop after a short or superficial cleaning, the area must be flushed with a generous amount of cold water for at least 15 or 20 minutes. Some chemicals are extremely dangerous and can cause very deep burns if they are not removed completely.
Once the chemical agent has been cleaned, the affected area must be dried and then protected with a sterile dry bandage. Change the bandage often and wash the burn gently with a mild antiseptic soap, before allowing it to dry naturally and applying a new bandage. Do not touch the area and don't remove blisters or scales, since it can slow the healing rate. It is also a bad idea to cover the burn with creams, since air circulation is vital for a speedy recovery.
If the burn is not severe, treating it yourself at home is usually enough to heal it. If you notice that the rate of healing is very slow or an infection develops, you should go see a medical professional. Burns that penetrate into the deeper layers of tissues need special medical treatment and sometimes dead tissues have to be surgically eliminated. If the chemical burn happens at work, report it to your superiors, who will usually send you to a hospital as part of the safety procedures.
Some chemicals can be neutralized by others, which stops the burning effect. However, this can be a dangerous procedure and you have to know what you're doing. Acids and bases neutralize each other, but the reaction is sometimes violent and can actually cause an even worse burn. Calling a burn center can provide very useful advice in such a situation.