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What Is the Treatment for Chemical Poisoning?

Exposure to certain chemicals may cause cell death.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 02 November 2014
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Treatment for chemical poisoning involves determining the chemical involved and providing supportive therapies to keep the patient stable through treatment and recovery. In cases where there is reason to believe a patient may have touched, inhaled, or consumed chemicals, it is important to have as much information as possible, including the packaging for the poison, if available. The wrong treatment could make the patient feel much worse and would delay the right treatment, potentially leading to complications.

In chemical poisoning, exposure to a chemical can lead to cell death and a cascading series of reactions in the patient as the body attempts to cope with the chemical. Patients may develop respiratory distress, confusion, nausea, vomiting, and difficulty walking or swallowing. The onset can be very rapid, especially in young children, as their smaller bodies are ill-equipped to handle toxic chemicals. Common sources of chemical poisoning include household chemicals, fertilizers, and medications.

Stopping the exposure is the first step with chemical poisoning. For contact poisonings, the patient's skin needs to be flushed with cool water or chemicals to neutralize pH, depending on the poison. Patients may need to vomit, take charcoal, or inhale supplemental oxygen if they ingest or inhale toxins, depending on the toxin. Sometimes a doctor will recommend gastric lavage, where care providers place a tube in the stomach and use it to pump out the contents. An antidote may be available and can be useful for treating some forms of chemical poisoning.

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Supportive care for a patient with chemical poisoning can include providing fluids, medicating to treat seizures and other symptoms, and resting the patient. Some patients need to go to a hospital for observation, allowing care providers to act quickly in the event of complications. After the patient recovers, follow-up visits can be necessary to check for additional side effects. Sometimes chemical poisoning complications do not set in for days, weeks, or even months. It is important to be alert to symptoms like decreased cognition or gastrointestinal problems.

In workplaces where chemicals are present, the workplace often has eyewash stations and other facilities to provide first aid in the event of chemical poisoning. It is important to read employee manuals carefully to get familiar with the protocol for different kinds of chemical exposure, and to call for help in addition to providing first aid. Poison control centers can offer immediate assistance with treating the patient in addition to referring clients to emergency medical services so the patient can get medical attention.

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