Detergents are powerful cleaning products that may contain strong acids, alkalis, or phosphates. Cationic detergents are often used as germ-killing cleansers (antiseptics) in hospitals. Anionic detergents are sometimes used to clean carpeting. Detergent poisoning occurs when someone swallows cationic or anionic detergents.
This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
- Damaging (corrosive) acids, including benzalkonium chloride
- Simple soap
- Severe change in acid level of blood (pH balance), which leads to damage in all of the body organs
Eyes, ears, nose, and throat:
- Loss of vision
- Severe pain in the throat
- Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
Heart and circulation:
Lungs and airways:
- Breathing difficulty (from breathing in the detergent)
- Throat swelling (may also cause breathing difficulty)
- Holes (necrosis) in the skin or tissues underneath
Seek medical help right away. Do not make a person throw up unless told to do so by poison control or a health care professional.
If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a health care provider. Do not give water or milk if the patient is having symptoms (such as vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness) that make it hard to swallow.
Before Calling Emergency
Determine the following information:
- Patient's age, weight, and condition
- Name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
- Time it was swallowed
- Amount swallowed
The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does nhot need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The health care provider will measure and monitor your vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. You may receive:
- Breathing support, include a tube through the mouth into the lungs, and a breathing machine (ventilator)
- Bronchoscopy -- camera down the throat to see burns in the airways and lungs
- Chest x-ray
EKG (heart tracing)
- Endoscopy -- camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach
- Fluids by IV (through the vein)
- Medicines to treat pain
- Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
- Washing of the skin (irrigation) -- perhaps every few hours for several days
How well you do depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment is received. The faster you get medical help, the better the chance for recovery.
Swallowing such poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. The outcome depends on the extent of this damage. Damage continues to occur to the esophagus and stomach for several weeks after the poison is swallowed.
Wax PM, Yarema M. Corrosives. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2007:chap 98.
Wax PM, Young A. Caustics. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls, RM, eds., Rosen’s Emergency Medicine-Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2013:chap 153.
Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.