First Aid for Chemical Burns

Kiara de Souza

3rd year MBBS, Goa Medical College, Goa

What are Chemical Burns?

Chemical burns are serious injuries caused by exposure to an acidic or basic substance. When a chemical comes into contact with the skin or the eye, damage can occur rapidly, within seconds or minutes. Unlike regular burns, the damage caused by a chemical burn can continue to progress even after initial exposure. If not treated immediately, the chemicals can penetrate to deeper layers of the skin making surgery inevitable.

A few differences between acid and base burns:

Acid burns are caused by strong acidic substances like sulphuric acid or hydrochloric acid.

Effect: They generally cause coagulation necrosis, which means that they tend to cause a layer of dry, hard skin to form on the affected area.

Symptoms: Redness, pain, and the possibility of blisters forming.

Burns by bases/ alkaline burns are caused by strong alkaline substances, such as sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide.

Effect: Usually causes liquefactive necrosis, which means that the affected skin becomes soft, slimy, and gelatinous.

Symptoms: Severe pain, swelling, and tissue damage that is not immediately noticeable.

First aid

As soon as a burn patient arrives, assess the affected area’s size, depth, and location to determine the severity of the injury. Immediate action is crucial as it can prevent further damage to the skin.

For both acid and alkaline burns, the first step is to remove the source of the burn, if it can be done safely. While doing so wear gloves for protection.

Treatment for acid and base burns is slightly different:

The acidic substance should be rinsed off immediately with water or a neutralising agent, if available.  In case of a base burn, rinsing should be continued for at least 20 minutes with water to dilute and remove the alkaline substance.

In some cases of serious burns, surgical intervention and skin grafting may be necessary to repair skin and tissue damage.

After rinsing the affected area, cover the burn with a clean, non-stick dressing to prevent contamination. Elevating the burned area can help reduce swelling in both acid and alkaline burns.


This is crucial to avoid permanent scarring or disfigurement. Patients will need to maintain a strict regimen of wound care, including the application of topical antibiotics and dressings. Future preventive measures should also be taken like providing protective equipment to workers in dangerous settings and improving safety protocols.

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