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Gas and Chemical Exposure

By

Abigail R. Lara

, MD, University of Colorado

Last full review/revision May 2020| Content last modified May 2020
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Topic Resources
  • Symptoms depend on which gas or chemical is inhaled and how deeply and for how long it was inhaled.

  • Symptoms may include irritation of the eyes or nose, cough, blood in the sputum, and shortness of breath.

  • Chest x-rays, computed tomography, and breathing tests are used to determine how much lung damage has occurred.

  • Oxygen and drugs to open the airways and decrease inflammation are given.

Many types of gases—such as chlorine, phosgene, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, nitrogen dioxide, and ammonia—may suddenly be released during industrial accidents and may severely irritate the lungs. Gases have also been used as chemical warfare agents.

Gases such as chlorine and ammonia easily dissolve and immediately irritate the mouth, nose, and throat. The parts deep inside the lungs are affected only when the gas is inhaled deeply. A common household exposure occurs when a person mixes household ammonia with cleansers containing bleach. The irritant gas chloramine is released.

Did You Know...

  • A common household exposure to a chemical gas occurs when a person mixes household ammonia with cleansers containing bleach.

Some gases—for instance, nitrogen dioxide—do not dissolve easily. Therefore, they do not produce early warning signs of exposure, such as irritation of the nose and eyes, and they are more likely to be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Such gases can cause inflammation of the small airways (bronchiolitis) or lead to fluid accumulation in the lungs (pulmonary edema).

Silo filler’s disease (which mostly affects farmers) results from inhaling fumes that contain nitrogen dioxide given off by moist silage, such as fresh corn or grains. Fluid may develop in the lungs as late as 12 hours after exposure. The condition may temporarily resolve and then recur 10 to 14 days later, even without further contact with the gas. A recurrence tends to affect the small airways (bronchioles).

Inhalation of some gases and chemicals may also trigger an allergic response that leads to inflammation and, in some cases, scarring in and around the tiny air sacs (alveoli) and bronchioles of the lung. This condition is called hypersensitivity pneumonitis.

Radioactive gases, which may be released in a nuclear reactor accident, may cause lung cancer and other cancers many years after the exposure.

Other inhaled gases may cause a general body poisoning (including breathing difficulty) because they are poisonous to the body's cells (such as cyanide) or because they displace oxygen in the blood and therefore limit the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues (such as methane or carbon monoxide).

In some people, inhalation of small amounts of gas or other chemicals over a long period may result in chronic bronchitis (inflammation of the airways). Also, inhalation of some chemicals, such as arsenic compounds and hydrocarbons, can cause cancer. Cancer may develop in the lungs or elsewhere in the body, depending on the substance inhaled.

Symptoms

Soluble gases such as chlorine, ammonia, and hydrofluoric acid cause severe burning in the eyes, nose, throat, windpipe, and large airways within minutes of exposure to them. In addition, they often cause cough and blood in the sputum (hemoptysis). Retching and shortness of breath also are common.

Less soluble gases such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone cause shortness of breath, which may be severe, after a delay of 3 to 4 hours and sometimes up to 12 hours after exposure (see also Air Pollution–Related Illness). With less soluble gases, long-term lung damage can occur and cause chronic wheezing and shortness of breath.

Diagnosis

  • A history of relevant exposure

  • Chest x-ray or computed tomography (CT)

A chest x-ray can show whether pulmonary edema or bronchiolitis has developed. Computed tomography is especially helpful when people have symptoms but their chest x-ray looks normal.

A sensor is attached to the person's finger to determine the amount of oxygen in the blood (pulse oximetry).

Tests of lung function, including determining how much air the lungs can hold and the rate at which oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged, are done to evaluate lung damage.

Prognosis

Most people recover completely from accidental exposure to gases. The most serious complications are lung infection or severe damage that causes scarring of the small airways (bronchiolitis obliterans). Some studies have shown long-term impairment of the lung function years after episodes of exposure to gases.

Prevention

The best way to prevent exposure is to use extreme care when handling gases and chemicals. People using cleaning products or other chemicals at home should work in well-ventilated areas.

Gas masks with their own air supply should be available in case of accidental spillage. Farmers need to know that accidental exposure to toxic gases in silos is dangerous, even fatal. People should not enter an environment where poisonous gases may be present to rescue an exposed person unless they have protective gear.

Did You Know...

  • People should not enter an environment where poisonous gases may be present to rescue an exposed person unless they have protective gear that supplies them with fresh air or oxygen from a tank.

Treatment

  • Oxygen therapy

Oxygen is the mainstay of treatment for people who are exposed to gases. If lung damage is severe, a person may need mechanical ventilation. But any person who has breathing problems after inhaling a gas is usually monitored in a hospital overnight to ensure that serious complications do not occur. Drugs that open the airways (bronchodilators), intravenous fluids, and antibiotics may be helpful. Corticosteroids such as prednisone are often given to reduce inflammation in the lungs.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

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RAYOS
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