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First Aid for Ocular Chemical Burns

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 11/27/2009

Exposure to acids and alkalis can cause strong chemical burns that may cause lasting tissue damage. The eyes are particularly vulnerable to this type of damage. Learning how to perform first aid for ocular chemical burns is important for anyone who works with chemicals.

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    About Chemical Eye Burns

    Most chemical injuries are occupational, although some may occur at home. Up to 10% of eye injuries are in the form of chemical eye burns; in addition up to 20% of facial burns involve one or both eyes. Any burn to the face or eyes should be treated promptly to reduce the possibility of blindness or permanent scarring.

    The effects of an ocular chemical burn depends largely on the type of chemical which caused the burn, as well as how much chemical was involved, how long exposure lasted, and whether the injury is treated promptly and correctly.

    Chemical burns may be alkaline, acidic, or irritant in nature. This depends on the pH of the chemical which causes the injury: if the pH of the chemical is lower than 7 it is said to be acidic; if higher than 7, it is alkaline. Whether acidic or alkaline, the nearer the pH of a chemical is to 7, the less damaging it is. Substances with a pH of close to 7 are called irritants.

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    First Aid for Chemical Eye Burns

    When chemicals come into contact with tissues, they continue to do damage until the chemical is removed or inactivated. For this reason the first and most important first aid treatment for ocular chemical burns is to wash out the eye thoroughly with plenty of clean water. The affected eye should be washed before any other action is taken.

    • In a work situation, anyone working with harsh chemicals is likely to have access to an emergency eyewash station or shower
    • At home, the easiest way to wash out the eye is to stand in the shower

    In either case, the eye should be washed for at least ten minutes, with the eyes open. This is often uncomfortable, but the eyes must stay open to aid in removing the chemical.

    If the chemical which caused the injury is an irritant (with a pH of 7 or close to it) then further treatment is not always necessary. The injured person should call his or her doctor or ophthalmologist to be sure. Any further symptoms such as vision loss, pain, redness, or irritation should prompt a visit to a local emergency department.

    If the chemical is an acid or alkali, emergency medical treatment should be sought as soon as possible – ideally transport should be arranged while the injury is being washed. The chemical should be identified and information be relayed to the consulting doctor.

    This information is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice.

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    References

    James Bradley Randleman, M.D. for eMedicineHealth.com: Chemical Eye Burns

    Richard F Edlich, MD, PhD, FACS, FASPS, FACEP and David B Drake, MD for eMedicine.com: Burns, Chemical