Swallowing or inhaling hydrocarbons can cause lung irritation, with coughing, choking, shortness of breath, and neurologic problems.
Sniffing or breathing fumes can cause irregular heartbeats, rapid heart rate, or sudden death, particularly after exertion or stress.
The diagnosis is based on a description of the events, the characteristic odor of petroleum on the person’s breath or clothing, and sometimes a chest x-ray.
Treatment involves removing contaminated clothing, washing the skin, and giving oxygen and sometimes antibiotics to people with breathing problems or pneumonia.
(See also Overview of Poisoning Overview of Poisoning Poisoning is the harmful effect that occurs when a toxic substance is swallowed, is inhaled, or comes in contact with the skin, eyes, or mucous membranes, such as those of the mouth or nose... read more .)
Petroleum products, cleaning products, and glues contain hydrocarbons (substances composed largely of hydrogen and carbon). Many children younger than age 5 are poisoned by swallowing petroleum products, such as gasoline, kerosene, and paint thinners, but most recover.
At greater risk are adolescents who intentionally breathe the fumes of glues, paint, solvents, cleaning sprays, gasoline, or propellants in some aerosols to become intoxicated, a type of substance use called huffing, bagging, sniffing, glue sniffing, or volatile substance use Volatile Solvents Volatile solvents are liquids that easily vaporize into a gas. When inhaled, the gas can cause a state of intoxication and long-term nerve and organ damage. Volatile solvents are found in many... read more . Such inhalation may cause fatal irregular heartbeats or cardiac arrest, especially after exertion or stress. Repeated inhalation of toluene (a component of some of these products) can damage parts of the brain. Some hydrocarbon products also contain poisonous additives such as methanol or lead.
Swallowed hydrocarbons cause coughing and choking, which allows the hydrocarbon liquid to enter the airways and irritate the lungs, a serious condition in itself (chemical pneumonitis Chemical Pneumonitis Aspiration pneumonia is lung infection caused by inhaling mouth secretions, stomach contents, or both. Chemical pneumonitis is lung irritation caused by inhalation of substances irritating or... read more ), and can lead to severe pneumonia. Lung involvement is a particular problem with thin, easy-flowing hydrocarbons such as mineral spirits, which is a solvent used in paint thinner and for cleaning tools, and others, including gasoline. Severe poisoning also can affect the brain, heart, bone marrow, and kidneys. Thick, less-runny hydrocarbons such as lamp oil and motor oil are less likely to enter the lungs but can cause severe and persistent irritation if they do.
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Symptoms of Hydrocarbon Poisoning
A person usually coughs and chokes after swallowing or inhaling hydrocarbons. A burning sensation can develop in the stomach, and the person may vomit. If the lungs are affected, the person continues to cough intensely. Breathing becomes rapid, and the skin may become bluish (cyanosis Cyanosis Cyanosis is a bluish discoloration of the skin resulting from an inadequate amount of oxygen in the blood. Cyanosis occurs when oxygen-depleted (deoxygenated) blood, which is bluish rather than... read more ) because of low levels of oxygen in the blood. Young children may have cyanosis, hold their breath, and cough persistently. Sometimes difficulty breathing does not develop until many hours after the hydrocarbons enter the lungs.
Hydrocarbon ingestion also causes neurologic symptoms, including drowsiness, poor coordination, stupor or coma, and seizures.
Diagnosis of Hydrocarbon Poisoning
History of contact with hydrocarbons and odor of petroleum on person
Sometimes chest x-ray and blood gas analysis
Hydrocarbon poisoning is diagnosed based on a description of the events and the characteristic odor of petroleum on the person’s breath or clothing or if a container is found near the person. Paint residue on the hands or around the mouth may suggest recent paint sniffing. Pneumonia Overview of Pneumonia Pneumonia is an infection of the small air sacs of the lungs (alveoli) and the tissues around them. Pneumonia is one of the most common causes of death worldwide. Often, pneumonia is the final... read more and chemical pneumonitis Chemical Pneumonitis Aspiration pneumonia is lung infection caused by inhaling mouth secretions, stomach contents, or both. Chemical pneumonitis is lung irritation caused by inhalation of substances irritating or... read more are diagnosed with a chest x-ray and by measuring the level of oxygen in the blood (see Arterial Blood Gas Analysis Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) Analysis and Pulse Oximetry Both arterial blood gas testing and pulse oximetry measure the amount of oxygen in the blood, which helps determine how well the lungs are functioning. Arterial blood gas tests are invasive... read more ). If doctors suspect brain damage, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is done.
Treatment of Hydrocarbon Poisoning
Removal of contaminated clothing and washing of skin
Avoidance of stomach emptying
Sometimes hospitalization for supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation
To treat poisoning, contaminated clothing should be removed, and the skin should be washed. If the person has stopped coughing and choking, particularly if the ingestion was small and accidental, treatment at home is possible. Home treatment should be done only after discussion with a poison center.
Doctors avoid emptying the person's stomach because doing so may cause liquid hydrocarbons to enter the lungs. People with breathing problems are hospitalized. If aspiration pneumonia Aspiration Pneumonia Aspiration pneumonia is lung infection caused by inhaling mouth secretions, stomach contents, or both. Chemical pneumonitis is lung irritation caused by inhalation of substances irritating or... read more or chemical pneumonitis Chemical Pneumonitis Aspiration pneumonia is lung infection caused by inhaling mouth secretions, stomach contents, or both. Chemical pneumonitis is lung irritation caused by inhalation of substances irritating or... read more develops, hospital treatment can include oxygen and, if severe, a ventilator Mechanical Ventilation Mechanical ventilation is use of a machine to aid the movement of air into and out of the lungs. Some people with respiratory failure need a mechanical ventilator (a machine that helps air get... read more . Antibiotics help if pneumonia develops. Recovery from pneumonia typically takes about a week but may take much longer if thick, syrup-like hydrocarbons such as lamp oil or motor oil have entered the lungs.
The following are some English-language resources that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of these resources.
American Association of Poison Control Centers: Represents the US-based poison centers that provide free, confidential services (24/7) through the Poison Help Line (1-800-222-1222)
Consumer Product Information Database (CPID): Information about the ingredients in products in a variety of categories (for example, auto, home maintenance, and pesticides) and their health effects