Hydrocarbon pneumonia is caused by drinking or breathing in gasoline, kerosene, furniture polish, paint thinner, or other oily materials or solvents. These hydrocarbons have a very low viscosity, which means that they are very, very thin and slippery. If you tried to drink these hydrocarbons, some would likely slip down your windpipe and into your lungs (aspiration) rather than going down your food pipe (esophagus) and into your stomach. This can easily happen if you try to siphon gas out of a gas tank with a hose and your mouth.
These products cause fairly rapid changes in the lungs, including inflammation, swelling, and bleeding.
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 a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.
Pneumonia - hydrocarbon
Symptoms may include any of the following:
- Shortness of breath
- Smell of a hydrocarbon product on the breath
- Stupor (decreased level of alertness)
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will check vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure.
The following tests and interventions (actions taken for improvement) may be done in the emergency department:
- Arterial blood gas monitoring
- Breathing support, including oxygen, inhalation treatment, breathing tube and ventilator (machine), in severe cases
- Complete blood count (CBC)
- Chest x-ray
- ECG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
- Fluids by vein (intravenous or IV)
- Blood metabolic panel
- Toxicology screen
Those with mild symptoms should be evaluated by doctors in an emergency room, but may not require a hospital stay.
People with moderate and severe symptoms are usually admitted to the hospital, occasionally to an intensive care unit (ICU).
Hospital treatment would likely include some or all of the interventions started in the emergency department.
Most children who drink or inhale hydrocarbon products and develop chemical pneumonitis recover fully following treatment. Highly toxic hydrocarbons may lead to rapid respiratory failure and death. Repeated ingestions may lead to permanent brain, liver and other organ damage.
Complications may include any of the following:
- Pleural effusion (fluid surrounding the lungs)
- Pneumothorax (collapsed lung from huffing)
- Secondary bacterial infections
When to Contact a Medical Professional
If you know or suspect that your child has swallowed or inhaled a hydrocarbon product, take them to the emergency room immediately. DO NOT use ipecac to make the person throw up.
In the United States, call 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a local poison control center. This 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. You can call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
If you have young children, be sure to identify and store materials containing hydrocarbons carefully.
Blanc PD. Acute responses to toxic exposures. In: Broaddus VC, Mason RJ, Ernst JD, et al, eds. Murray and Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 75.
Lee DC. Hydrocarbons. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 158.
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.