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Drain cleaner poisoning


Drain cleaners contain very dangerous chemicals that can be harmful to your health if you swallow them, breathe them in (inhale), or if they come in contact with your skin and eyes.

This article discusses poisoning from swallowing or breathing in drain cleaner.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or a local poison control center at 1-800-222-1222.

Poisonous Ingredient

Sodium hydroxide

Where Found

This poison is found in:

  • Some drain cleaners
  • Some aquarium products

Note: This list may not be all inclusive.


Symptoms of drain cleaner poisoning include:

  • Abdominal pain (severe)
  • Breathing difficulty due to throat swelling
  • Burns of the mouth and throat
  • Chest pain
  • Collapse
  • Diarrhea
  • Drooling
  • Loss of vision if the poison touched the eyes
  • Mouth pain (severe)
  • Rapid drop in blood pressure (shock)
  • Throat pain (severe)
  • Severe burns and tissue damage
  • Vomiting, often bloody

Home Care

Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.

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.

DO NOT give vinegar or lemon juice, as this may cause more severe burning.

Before Calling Emergency

The following information is helpful for emergency assistance:

  • The person's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
  • The time it was swallowed
  • The amount swallowed

However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.

Poison Control What to Expect at the Emergency Room

In the United States, call 1-800-222-1222 to speak with a local poison control center. This 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. You can call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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:

  • Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
  • Blood and urine tests
  • Camera down the throat (endoscopy) to see burns in the food pipe (esophagus) and stomach
  • Chest x-ray
  • EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
  • Fluids through a vein (intravenous or IV)
  • Medicines to treat symptoms

For skin exposure, treatment may include:

  • Surgical removal of burned skin (debridement)
  • Transfer to a hospital that specializes in burn care
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation), possibly every few hours for several days

Outlook (Prognosis)

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

Swallowing this type of poison can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Damage to the esophagus and stomach continues to occur for several weeks after the sodium hydroxide was swallowed. Death may occur up to several months later from additional complications. Holes (perforations) in the esophagus and stomach may cause serious infections in the inside spaces of the chest and abdomen, which may lead to death. Surgery may be needed if the chemical has perforated the esophagus, stomach, or intestine.


Goldfrank LR, ed. Goldfrank's Toxicologic Emergencies. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill; 2006.

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.

Review Date: 1/25/2015
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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