Hydrochloric acid poisoning
Hydrochloric acid is a clear, poisonous liquid. It is highly corrosive, which means it immediately causes severe damage, such as burning, on contact.
This article discusses poisoning due to swallowing or breathing in hydrochloric acid.
This article is for information only. Do NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
Hydrochloric acid is found in:
- Certain fertilizers
- Pool chemicals
- Soldering fluxes
- Toilet bowl and other porcelain cleaners
This list is not all-inclusive.
Symptoms from swallowing hydrochloric acid may include:
- Abdominal pain - severe
- Breathing difficulty due to swelling of throat
- Chest pain - severe
- Mouth pain - severe
- Rapid drop in blood pressure (shock)
- Throat pain - severe
- Vomiting, bloody
Symptoms from breathing in hydrochloric acid:
- Bluish color to lips and fingernails
- Chest tightness
- Coughing up blood
- Low blood pressure
- Rapid pulse
- Shortness of breath
If the poison touches your skin or eyes, you may have:
- Vision loss
Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.
If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.
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 person is having symptoms (such as vomiting, convulsions, or a decreased level of alertness) that make it hard to swallow.
If the person breathed in the poison, immediately move him or her to fresh air.
Before Calling Emergency
If possible, determine the following information:
- Person's age, weight, and condition (for example, is the person awake or alert?)
- Name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
- When it was swallowed or inhaled
- How much was swallowed or inhaled
However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.
Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT 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 the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The person may receive:
- Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
- Blood and urine tests
- Camera down the throat to see burns in the airway (bronchoscopy)
- Camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and stomach (endoscopy)
- Chest x-ray
- EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
- Fluids through a vein (IV)
- Medicines to treat symptoms
- Tube through the nose into the stomach to suction (aspirate) any remaining acid if the victim is seen shortly after ingesting the poison
Note: Activated charcoal does not effectively treat (adsorb) hydrochloric acid.
For skin exposure, treatment may include:
- Surgical removal of burned skin (debridement)
- Transfer to a hospital that specializes in burn care
- Washing of the skin (irrigation), possibly every few hours for several days
How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment was received. The faster a person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.
The person may need to stay in the hospital for more treatment. Swallowing poison can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Extensive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach are possible. Holes (perforations) in the esophagus and stomach may result in serious infections in the chest and abdominal cavities, which may result in death. Surgery may be needed to repair the perforations. Cancer of the esophagus is a high risk in people who live after ingesting hydrochloric acid.
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.
National Library of Medicine, Specialized Information Services, Toxicology Data Network. Hydrogen chloride. Toxnet.nlm.nih.gov Web site. Updated October 19, 2015. toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search2/f?./temp/~2stjcv:1. Accessed February 9, 2017.
Wax PM, Young A. Caustics. 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 153.
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Emeritus, 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.