Caustic burn

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  • Substances that cause damage on contact with body surfaces
  • Degree of injury determined by pH, concentration, volume, duration of contact
  • Acidic agents cause coagulative necrosis
  • Alkaline agents cause liquefactive necrosis (considered more damaging to most tissues)
  • Corrosive agents have reducing, oxidising, denaturing or defatting potential


  • Accepts protons → free hydroxide ion, which easily penetrates tissue → cellular destruction
    • Liquefactive necrosis and protein disruption may allow for deep penetration into surrounding tissues
  • Examples
    • Sodium hydroxide (NaOH), potassium hydroxide (KOH)
      • Lye present in drain cleaners, hair relaxers, grease remover
    • Bleach (sodium hypochlorite) and Ammonia (NH3)
      • Cleaning products such as oven cleaners, swimming pool chlorinator
      • Household bleach ingestion (4-6% sodium hypochlorite) rarely causes significant esophageal injury[1][2]


  • Proton donor → free hydrogen ion → cell death via denatured protein → coagulation necrosis and eschar formation, which limits deeper involvement
    • However, due to pylorospasm and pooling of acid, high-grade gastric injuries are common
      • Mortality rate is higher compared to strong alkali ingestions
  • Can be systemically absorbed and → metabolic acidosis, hemolysis, AKI
  • Examples
    • Hydrochloric acid (HCl), hydrofluoric acid (HF), Sulfuric acid (H2SO4), Phosphoric acid, Oxalic Acid, Acetic acid
      • Found in: auto batteries, drain openers, toilet bowl, metal cleaners, swimming pool cleaners, rust remover, nail primer

Clinical Features

Caustic burn caused by exposure to mustard gas (World War I).
Hydrofluoric acid (HF) burns, which were not evident until a day after exposure.
  • Signs and symptoms are inadequate to predict presence or severity of injury after caustic ingestion [3]
  • Exam eyes and skin (splash and dribble injuries may easily be missed)
  • GI tract injury
  • Laryngotracheal injury

Differential Diagnosis

Caustic Burns



  • Clinical diagnosis


Only necessary in patients with significant injury or volume of ingestion


  • CBC
  • Metabolic panel
  • Lactate
  • Calcium level (if Hydrofluoric acid exposure)
  • ECG
    • May show QT-prolongation if hypocalcemic secondary to Hydrofluoric acid
  • APAP/ASA levels if concerned about coingestion (suicidal patients)


  • First prevent personal exposure to the caustic agent by removing all clothing and decontaminating the patient
  • Brush any dry chemicals off the patient
  • Irrigate all wounds and areas of exposure with copious amounts of water
    • Exception: dry lime, phenol, metals such as potassium and sodium, causes harmful exothermic reaction

Acidic injuries (except Hydrofluoric acid)

Alkali injuries

  • May appear superficial but often are deeper with ongoing burn
  • Treat with copious irrigation and local wound debridement to remove residual compound


  • Admit the following:
    • Injuries that cross flexor or extensor surfaces
    • Facial injuries
    • Perineum injuries
    • Partial-thickness injuries >10-15% of BSA
    • All full-thickness burns

See Also


  1. Wasserman RL, Ginsburg CM. Caustic substance injuries. J Pediatr. 1985;107(2):169-174. doi:10.1016/s0022-3476(85)80119-0
  2. Harley EH, Collins MD. Liquid household bleach ingestion in children: a retrospective review. Laryngoscope. 1997;107(1):122-125. doi:10.1097/00005537-199701000-00023
  3. Gaudreault, P. et al. Predictability of esophageal injury from signs and symptoms: a study of caustic ingestion in 378 children. Pediatrics. 1983;71(5):767-770.