A chemical burn occurs when a liquid chemical contacts the eye. Depending on the chemical and degree of exposure, the potential for injury ranges from temporary redness and irritation to blindness.
A chemical burn occurs when a liquid chemical contacts the eye. Most commonly, the injury happens when a chemical splashes over the face. However, chemical burns may also result from rubbing at your eyes after handling chemicals.
Depending on the chemical and degree of exposure, the potential for injury ranges from temporary redness and irritation to blindness. Chemicals splashed into the eyes can also cause poisoning as they are absorbed into the bloodstream many times more rapidly than chemicals splashed onto the skin.
Always wear appropriate safety goggles or a face shield when handling liquid chemicals. For splashes of non-toxic liquids, such as soaps or shampoos, flushing the eye with fresh water is usually all the treatment you need. However, splashes from acids or alkali chemicals are serious and may cause vision loss. Seek urgent medical attention.
The symptoms of a chemical burn depend on the substance splashed into the eyes, but may include:
- Burning sensation
- Swelling of the eyelids.
Complications may lead to vision loss
Complications of severe chemical burns can include:
- Corneal perforation – damage to the cornea, the clear surface of the eye.
- Corneal ulcer – lesion on the cornea.
- Cataracts – an abnormal clouding of the eye’s lens.
- Glaucoma – an eye disease that damages the optic nerve.
First aid suggestions
Liquid splashes from chemicals may seriously damage the eye. First aid suggestions include:
- Hold your face under running water for 15 to 20 minutes and allow the water stream to flood into your eyes. Use your fingers to hold your eyelids apart (but make sure there is no trace of the chemical on your fingers).
- Remove contact lenses, if you wear them, as soon as possible.
- Seek immediate medical advice. Medical staff will need to know what chemical was involved.
- Do not judge the seriousness of your eye injury on the degree of pain. For example, alkali chemicals don’t usually cause significant symptoms but can seriously damage the eye.
Professional care for chemical burns to the eye may include:
- Irrigation – the doctor or ophthalmologist will first flush the eyes, even if you’ve already flushed them yourself. In most cases, prompt and thorough rinsing of the eye (with saline or fresh water) dramatically reduces the risk of injury and long-term damage.
- Full eye examination – to check for location and degree of damage.
- Diagnostic tests – for example, a fluorescein evaluation, which involves the use of a special dye that colours damaged or dead eye tissue yellow-green when viewed under ultraviolet light.
- Follow-up examination – generally speaking, the full extent of the injury will not be known for about 24 hours after the accident.
Treatment differs according to the chemical agent and degree of injury, but may include:
- Pain relief medicine
- Topical antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection
- Medicated eye drops
- Lubricants applied to the eye surface to prevent the eyelids from sticking to the cornea as it heals
- Anti-inflammatory medicine
- In mild cases, an eye patch is worn until the eye recovers
- In more serious cases, hospital admission is necessary and treatment is given for any complications.
Taking care of yourself at home
Be guided by your doctor or healthcare professional, but general suggestions include:
- Don’t drive a vehicle while you are wearing an eye patch.
- Use medicines strictly as directed.
- Attend all follow-up appointments.
- See your doctor or eye specialist straight away if you have new symptoms such as eye pain, redness, photophobia (intolerance of light) or vision problems.
Prevention is better than cure – always wear eye protection
Estimates suggest that about 90 per cent of chemical burns to the eye are avoidable. Wear eye protection every time you handle liquid chemicals. Prescription glasses or sunglasses do not provide reliable protection because the loose fit allows liquids to splash behind the frames.
Appropriate safety gear is the best way to reduce your risk of injury. Options depend on the job, but may include:
- Safety glasses – look similar to regular prescription glasses but have shatter-resistant lenses, stronger frames and side shields. However, safety glasses do not seal against the face, which means liquids may splash or run into the eyes. Safety glasses may be an option if the risk of splash is low or if the liquid is non-toxic.
- Safety goggles – are made from smash-resistant materials and seal against the face. Some styles of safety goggles are large enough to be worn over the top of prescription glasses.
- Face shields – offer maximum protection against splash injury. In some cases, safety goggles are also worn. Face shields are recommended when handling dangerous chemicals such as corrosive liquids, cryogenic fluids or biological materials.
Other safety suggestions
Important ways to reduce your risk include:
- Know your chemicals – check the chemical’s label and its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for information on safe handling. Strictly follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
- Opt for safer products – hazardous chemicals can occasionally be replaced with less toxic options. Or, you might be able to buy the same chemical in a less dangerous form – for example, a liquid product may also be available as pellets.
- Keep safety equipment in good repair – safety goggles and face shields need to be replaced regularly. Check the manufacturer’s guidelines.
- Don’t wear contact lenses – a contact lens may absorb the chemical and concentrate the burn on the eye surface. When working with chemicals, wear prescription glasses instead of contact lenses – and always wear protective equipment over the glasses.
- Dispose of unwanted chemicals safely – contact Sustainability Victoria on 1800 353 233 or visit the website and go to the ‘Find a service’ section for dumping times and places around Victoria.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Emergency department of your nearest hospital
- Always call an ambulance in a medical emergency Tel. 000 (triple zero)
- Victorian Poisons Information Centre Tel. 13 11 26 – seven days a week, 24 hours a day – for advice when poisoning or suspected poisoning occurs and for poisoning prevention information
- Your manager or supervisor
- Your elected occupational health and safety (OH&S) representative and your workplace OH&S coordinator
- WorkSafe Victoria Tel. (03) 9641 1444 or 1800 136 089 (toll free) - for general enquiries
- WorkSafe Victoria Emergency Response Line Tel. 13 23 60 - to report serious workplace emergencies, seven days, 24 hours
- Sustainability Victoria Tel. 1800 353 233 – for information about safe chemical disposal
Things to remember
- A chemical burn occurs when a liquid chemical contacts the eye.
- Alkalis are especially dangerous to the eyes.
- In many cases, prompt and thorough rinsing of the eye (with saline or fresh water) dramatically reduces the risk of injury and long-term damage. It is often better to go straight to the nearest tap than to wait for saline from the first aid kit.
- Always wear appropriate safety goggles or a face shield when handling liquid chemicals.
You might also be interested in:
- Eye injuries - foreign body in the eye.
- Eye safety at work.
- Farm safety - handling agrichemicals.
- Workplace safety - hazardous substances.
- Eyes - flash burns.
Want to know more?
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This page has been produced in consultation with and approved by:
(Logo links to further information)
Royal Australian New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO)
Last reviewed: August 2012
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