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What Is a Vesicant?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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A vesicant is something which is capable of raising skin blisters on contact. Vesicants were notoriously used during the First World War as a chemical warfare agent, with armies utilizing compounds such as mustard gas to disable each other. Some vesicants are classified as chemical agents solely, with no known utility. Others may be useful in chemical manufacturing, and some medications can actually act as vesicants. It is important to avoid contact with vesicants whenever possible because they are highly corrosive and they can be extremely dangerous.

When human skin is exposed to a vesicant, a rapid chemical reaction occurs, triggering the formation of a water blister. The blister can be quite large, and often several blisters cluster together. Exposure is also usually very painful as a result of the damage to the skin The blisters will linger for several days, eventually resolving and subsiding, assuming that the patient does not experience further injury as a result of the chemical exposure. The skin may be scarred or irritated, and it is possible for infection to set in if the patient is not well cared for and kept in a clean environment.

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Sometimes, people inhale vesicants. This can cause serious damage to the trachea and lungs, as the same reaction which occurs on the surface of the skin can occur inside the body as well. The patient may develop difficulty breathing, and often coughs heavily as a result of inhalation. Consuming blister agents can cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, characterized by diarrhea and vomiting. Prolonged exposure or exposure to a highly efficient vesicant can result in death.

In the case of medications, most vesicants are chemotherapy agents. Chemotherapy is used in the treatment of cancer, and involves aggressively attacking cells to prevent a cancer from spreading and to encourage it to shrink. These drugs are tightly controlled because they are highly toxic. Sometimes, a situation known as extravasation occurs, in which chemotherapy drugs leak out of an intravenous needle and into the surrounding skin, causing a vesicant reaction as the drugs interact with the skin.

Care for someone who has been exposed to a vesicant varies, depending on the vesicant and the setting. People exposed to vesicants used in hospital and clinical settings usually get prompt attention because the exposure is quickly noticed and can be addressed by a doctor or nurse. People exposed to blistering chemicals in settings such as chemical plants should follow the emergency exposure protocol and seek medical attention immediately.

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sunnySkys
Post 2

Mustard gas is scary stuff! I read somewhere that the effects aren't instantaneous. In fact, people who are exposed don't show symptoms for 24 hours sometimes! So it's not like you can limit your exposure, because you might not even know you're being exposed.

Another interesting fact is that scientists were able to develop the first chemotherapy drug from mustard gas! It seems crazy something that has saved so many lives was discovered because of chemical warfare.

strawCake
Post 1

Vesicants sound very scary. Even just thinking about blistering in my lungs is making me shudder a little bit. I can't imagine how scary that must have been for soldiers during World War I that were exposed to this. What a horrible thing to experience!

Also, I had no idea that chemotherapy was a vesicant. I know sometimes people get chemotherapy treatment through ports and they are allowed to have it done at home. I think this is kind of dangerous now that I know about the possibility of the medicine damaging the skin nearby if something should go wrong.

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