Caustic Ingestions Clinical Presentation

Updated: Oct 27, 2018
  • Author: Eric M Kardon, MD, FACEP; Chief Editor: David Vearrier, MD, MPH  more...
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The physician should try to identify the specific agent ingested, as well as the concentration, pH, and amount of substance ingested. The time, nature of exposure, duration of contact, and any immediate on-scene treatment are important in determining management of toxicity.

The presence or absence of the following symptoms should be determined since the presence of any of these symptoms suggests the possibility of significant internal injury (although their absence does not preclude significant injury):

  • Dyspnea
  • Dysphagia
  • Oral pain and odynophagia
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting

Rapidly obtaining reliable information on the particular agent involved is vital. This is particularly true of uncommon caustic agents, some of which have important toxic concerns beyond those of a simple caustic ingestion.

A good example of this is the potential for abrupt, life-threatening hypocalcemia following ingestion of hydrogen fluoride, even in a relatively dilute form such as that found in some rust removers. Case reports of patients surviving such suicidal ingestions underline the value of being able to anticipate and aggressively manage the systemic hypocalcemia, which is unique to hydrogen fluoride, with intravenous calcium. Other examples of caustic agents with unique toxicities include phenol, zinc chloride, and mercuric chloride, all of which can cause significant systemic toxicity and which may require significant changes in management.

Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), online databases, and consultations with the local poison center are all ways for a clinician to rapidly familiarize themselves with unfamiliar caustic agents.



Common acid-containing sources include the following:

  • Toilet bowl–cleaning products
  • Automotive battery liquid
  • Rust-removal products
  • Metal-cleaning products
  • Cement-cleaning products
  • Drain-cleaning products
  • Soldering flux containing zinc chloride

Common alkaline-containing sources include the following:

  • Drain-cleaning products
  • Ammonia-containing products
  • Oven-cleaning products
  • Swimming pool–cleaning products
  • Automatic dishwasher detergent
  • Hair relaxers
  • Clinitest tablets
  • Bleaches
  • Cement

Physical Examination

As with the history, physical examination findings may be deceptively unremarkable after a significant caustic ingestion, despite the presence of significant tissue necrosis.

Signs of impending airway obstruction may include the following:

  • Stridor

  • Hoarseness

  • Dysphonia or aphonia

  • Respiratory distress, tachypnea, hyperpnea

  • Cough

Other signs of injury may include the following:

  • Tachycardia

  • Oropharyngeal burns – These are important when identified; however, significant esophageal involvement may occur in the absence of oropharyngeal lesions

  • Drooling

  • Subcutaneous air

  • Acute peritonitis – Abdominal guarding, rebound tenderness, and diminished bowel sounds

  • Hematemesis

Indications of severe injury include the following:

  • Altered mental status

  • Peritoneal signs

  • Evidence of viscous perforation

  • Stridor

  • Hypotension

  • Shock