Drain opener poisoning

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Definition

Drain opening agents are chemicals used to open clogged drains, often in homes. Drain opening agent poisoning can occur if a child accidentally drinks these chemicals, or if someone splashes the poison into the eyes when pouring it or breathes in the fumes of "foaming" drain openers.

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.

Alternative Names

Drain opening agents

Poisonous Ingredient

Poisonous ingredients include:

  • Hydrochloric acid
  • Lye (sodium hydroxide or caustic soda)
  • Potassium hydroxide
  • Sulfuric acid

Where Found

These chemicals are found in drain cleaners or opener products. These agents may also be present in other sources.

Symptoms

Drain opener poisoning can cause symptoms in many parts of the body.

BLOOD

  • Severe change in acid level of blood (pH balance), which leads to damage in all of the body organs

EYES, EARS, NOSE, AND THROAT

  • Burns to the eyes, which may result in permanent vision loss
  • Severe pain in the throat
  • Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue

GASTROINTESTINAL SYSTEM

HEART AND CIRCULATORY SYSTEM

LUNGS AND AIRWAYS

  • Breathing difficulty (from breathing in drain opening agent)
  • Throat swelling (may also cause breathing difficulty)

SKIN

  • Burns
  • Holes (necrosis) in the skin or tissues underneath
  • Irritation

Home Care

Seek medical help RIGHT AWAY. 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 them to fresh air.

Before Calling Emergency

Get the following information:

  • Person's age, weight, and condition
  • Name of the product (and ingredients and strength, if known)
  • Time it was swallowed
  • Amount swallowed

Poison Control

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 national 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. 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. Symptoms will be treated as appropriate. The person may receive:

  • Breathing support, including tube through the mouth into the lungs, and breathing machine (ventilator)
  • Bronchoscopy: camera down the throat to see burns in the airways and lungs
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (heart tracing)
  • Endoscopy: camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach
  • Fluids through the vein (by IV)
  • Medicines for pain
  • Surgical removal of burned skin (skin debridement)
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation), perhaps every few hours for several days

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment is received. The faster the person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.

If this type of poison gets in the eye, it can be very dangerous and difficult to manage. Loss of vision is common. Swallowing such poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body.

Damage continues to occur to the esophagus and stomach for several weeks after the poison was swallowed.

References

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.

Version Info

  • Last reviewed on 11/4/2015
  • Jesse Borke, MD, FACEP, FAAEM, Attending Physician at FDR Medical Services/Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, Buffalo, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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