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Chemicals can cause many health related problems, but for the purposes of this answer we shall focus on management of chemicals that come into contact with the skin and therefore cause burns.

Many chemical and substances can result in burns when they come into contact with the skin, and they can vary from those that have a low pH and are very acidic, to those that have a very high pH and are alkaline, or caustic.

Mild chemicals may cause slight irritation which might not even be noticed until a couple of hours after it has come into contact with the skin. The more potent chemicals though can cause immediate symptoms of pain and damage to the skin.

Causes of chemical burns

Common acidic chemicals include hydrochloric acid, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, hydrofluoric acid, acetic acid and chromic acid.

Common alkaline, or caustic, chemicals include sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), potassium hydroxide (caustic potash) and ammonium hydroxide.

Management of chemical burns

The following are immediate steps that need to be taken when there is a recognized chemical burn:

  • The chemical that is causing the burn must be removed immediately while protecting yourself. If a dry chemical is involved, then any remaining product must be brushed off. When doing so, you must make sure that you are wearing gloves, using a towel or using any other suitable object to get rid of the substance.
  • Any clothing or jewelry that is contaminated must be removed. This is done in order to prevent any further burning.
  • The burned area must be rinsed with water immediately. A cool and steady stream of tap water should run over the affected area for 10 minutes or more. Being rinsed under a cold shower is the best way to accomplish this, and make sure that the eyes are always protected to avoid any accidental exposure.
  • Apply gauze or a loose bandage over the burn.
  • Use over-the-counter pain medication for any pain. Good choices include anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, diclofenac or naproxen. You can also use acetaminophen. 
  • Getting a tetanus injection should be considered. If you are up to date with your tetanus vaccines then there's no need to take one, but you need to make sure that you get this injection every 10 years.
Immediate medical attention should be sought if the affected individual starts showing signs of shock such as fainting, shallow breathing or paleness; if the chemical burn has penetrated through the superficial layer of the skin, and the burn has affected an area covering around 8 centimetres in width; or if the burn involves the face, eyes, hands, feet, genital area, buttocks, a major joint or if it encircles a limb.

If there's any uncertainty over whether a chemical or substance is toxic or not, it's advised to phone your local poison centre or toxicology lab to get further information.

When you seek emergency medical attention don't forget to take the container of the involved substance, or the name of the chemical, with you to the emergency department.

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