Thumbnail image of: Skin, Cross Section: Illustration

Burn Caused by Chemicals

What is a burn caused by chemicals?

A burn is damage to your skin and other body tissues caused by a wet or dry chemical. Not all chemicals cause burns, but some can cause severe burns. Burns can be small or cover large areas of your body.

  • A superficial (first-degree) burn is damage to the top layer of skin. Although painful, a first-degree burn is usually not serious and rarely leaves scars.
  • A partial-thickness (second-degree) burn damages the first few layers of skin. A second-degree burn can be very painful. The skin can get infected or leave scars.
  • A full-thickness (third-degree) burn is a very serious burn that involves all layers of skin and may damage muscle and other tissues under the skin. Large third degree burns can be life-threatening.

What causes a burn?

Burns happen when your skin touches a wet or dry chemical, such as:

  • Chemicals used to etch glass or remove rust
  • Chemicals used to make plastics
  • Fertilizers, insecticides, some paints, and chemicals used to develop photographs
  • Car battery acid
  • Drain cleaners
  • Gasoline
  • Wet or dry cement
  • Lime
  • Chlorine

What are the symptoms?

First-degree burns cause:

  • Pink or red area of skin (the skin stays red if you press on it)
  • Pain
  • Mild swelling or puffiness of your skin, but no blisters

After a few days, your skin may itch and start to peel. Large first-degree burns can also cause restlessness, headaches, and fever for a day or two.

Second-degree burns cause the same symptoms as first-degree burns and you will have 1 or more blisters. The blisters usually turn white and may break open. They may leak fluid, making the skin look wet. The burned area may also look blotchy, with some areas redder than others. The burn is usually very painful and there may be some swelling. If large skin areas are burned, you may have nausea or a headache.

Third-degree burns may turn the skin white and ashy or it may be black and leathery. There may be little pain in the burned area because the nerves are also burned, but the areas surrounding the burn will be quite painful.

How is it treated?

You usually don’t need to see your healthcare provider for treatment of a first-degree burn or a small second-degree burn. Get medical treatment for any type of burn if it covers more than a couple of inches of skin, especially if it is on your hands, feet, face, groin, buttocks, or a big joint, like your knee or shoulder.

All third-degree burns and some large second-degree burns are an emergency and require medical treatment. Call 911 or go to an emergency room.

For chemical burns, follow these first-aid steps, while making sure to avoid contact with the chemical:

  • Remove jewelry or clothing from the burned area right away, before the skin starts to swell. Don’t remove clothing if it is stuck to the burn. If you cannot do this, emergency departments have special tools for removing jewelry and clothing.
  • Rinse a liquid chemical from the skin with cool running water for at least 15 minutes. Be sure to avoid splashing the chemical in your eyes. After rinsing, call the Poison Control Center (US: 1-800-222-1222) for advice about the specific chemical that burned you, or have someone else call while you rinse off the chemical. It helps to have the chemical container with you when you make the call to make sure you give the correct name for the chemical.
  • Brush as much of the dry chemical off the skin as you can. Brush gently so that you don’t get the chemical in your lungs or eyes. If you have large amounts of water available, rinse the skin with cool running water for at least 15 minutes to wash the chemical off. Be sure to rinse skin creases well. Be careful not to splash the chemical in your eyes. It’s important to flush with a lot of water because small amounts of water will activate some chemicals, such as lime, and cause more damage. If you don’t have a large amount of water available, keep dry chemicals dry unless a healthcare provider or the Poison Control Center, gives you different directions. Don’t use other chemicals to stop a chemical burn. Mixing chemicals may worsen the burn. Don’t put any nonprescription burn medicine on skin burned by a chemical. Salves, grease, or butter may keep the chemical on the burned area, and make the burn worse.
  • Don’t put a bandage on the burn unless you are told to do so by a healthcare provider.

Burns that cover a lot of your body are usually treated at a burn center. Medical care may include:

  • Extra fluids to replace the large amount of fluid your body is losing through the burned area. Your healthcare provider may give you IV fluids.
  • Antibiotics to prevent an infection. The burned skin can no longer protect your body from infection by bacteria.
  • Special bandages that will help prevent an infection
  • Prescription medicine for pain
  • A tetanus shot to prevent tetanus infection

First-degree burns usually heal in 5 to 6 days. The damaged skin may peel within a few days. You will usually not have any scarring unless the burn gets infected.

Second-degree burns usually heal in 10 days to 2 weeks. Large burns may take 3 to 4 weeks to heal. There may be little or no scarring if the burn was not too big and was not infected.

If you have third-degree burns, you may be in the hospital for a few days or for many weeks. You may need skin grafts and several plastic surgeries, depending on the severity of the burns. Soon after the injury, the burn may be covered with a temporary skin graft. Later on, a permanent skin graft from a healthy area of your own skin may be used to cover the burned area.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • With second-degree burns, new blisters may form over several hours. Try not to break the blisters. If the blister breaks, try to leave the old skin in place to protect the new skin growth underneath. Otherwise, trim off loose skin that is bothering you with clean scissors. You can also ask your provider to do this.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, you should not take these medicines for more than 10 days.
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age.
    • Acetaminophen may cause liver damage or other problems. Unless recommended by your provider, don’t take more than 3000 milligrams (mg) in 24 hours. To make sure you don’t take too much, check other medicines you take to see if they also contain acetaminophen. Ask your provider if you need to avoid drinking alcohol while taking this medicine.
  • Avoid wearing clothes or shoes or doing activities that rub or irritate the burned area. Try to use it less than you normally would. This can help it heal.
  • Try not to expose the burned area to sun or extremely hot or cold temperatures.
  • If you are bothered by itching, talk to your healthcare provider, who may prescribe a medicine to help.
  • When you clean the burned area, wash it gently with water and soap that doesn’t have added scents or chemicals.
  • Check for any changes or signs of infection, which include new or worse redness, swelling, pain, warmth, or drainage from the burned area. If your healthcare provider put a bandage over the burned area, follow your provider’s instructions for changing the bandage.
  • Drink enough water or juice to keep your urine light yellow. This helps prevent dehydration.
  • Keep burned arms or legs propped up higher than your heart as much as possible for the first day or 2. This will help reduce pain and swelling.
  • If you have a temporary or permanent skin graft, be sure you know how to care for the graft compared to your other burn areas.

Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How long it will take to recover
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent burns caused by chemicals?

Examples of things you can do to help prevent burns are:

  • Wear protective clothing when working with chemicals and follow the label instructions.
  • If you work with chemicals as part of your job, it is important that you know how to use and store chemicals properly.
  • If you work with chemicals in a building, know where emergency showers are located.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-21
Last reviewed: 2014-07-31
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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