Hydrochloric acid is a fairly common chemical. It has a powerful smell, and even inhaling too much can be fatal. Long-term exposure to hydrochloric acid has negative health consequences, even at low exposure levels. Since it is fairly common, people and pets sometimes breathe or swallow it, and the effects can be deadly.
Hydrochloric acid is a common ingredient in many fertilisers, pool chemicals and in soldering fluxes. It is used to make chlorides and to refine ore for making tin and tantalum. It is often used to clean metal and as a reagent in laboratories. Some dyes are made with hydrochloric acid. It has uses in the food processing industry; photography and the textiles industry also have uses for hydrochloric acid. Outside of industrial environments, people usually come into contact with hydrochloric acid around swimming pools or where fertilisers are used. If your eyes begin to itch, you begin to cough or your nose burns, these are warning signs that the level of hydrochloric acid in the environment is dangerous. It is also dangerous to breathe it, so leave the area immediately.
Hydrochloric acid is very corrosive and caustic. It causes immediate burns in the mouth and throat. These burns can be severe and even fatal. Swallowing hydrochloric acid also causes severe abdominal pain, swelling in the throat that causes difficulty breathing, severe chest pains, drooling, a fever and pain in the mouth and throat. Blood pressure drops rapidly and victims usually vomit blood. A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine highlighted 25 cases of people swallowing hydrochloric acid over a 13-year period. Twelve of the patients (or 48 per cent) died, 10 patients underwent surgery and survived and three patients survived with non-evasive medical treatments. The long-term effects of swallowing hydrochloric acid depend on the amount swallowed and how quickly the patient receives medical treatment. Extensive damage to the mouth, throat and stomach is likely. Hydrochloric acid burns skin and soft tissue quickly.
What to Do
Call poison control or 911 immediately if you or someone you know has ingested hydrochloric acid. Doctors recommend not to induce vomiting. Unless the person is vomiting, having convulsions or is not fully conscious, having them drink water or milk helps dilute the chemical. National Poison Control is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to give confidential help to poison victims free of charge. Its number is 800-222-1222. You can also go directly to a hospital emergency room.
Emergency room staff take the patient's vital signs, including blood pressure, temperature, rate of breathing and pulse rate. Patients are usually given IV fluids and any burns are treated. An endoscopy checks for burns in the throat and a bronchoscopy checks for burns in the air passages. The patient is usually given oxygen, as well. Other treatments are prescribed according to the severity of the burns or other symptoms the patient experiences.
If hydrochloric acid is inhaled, the lips turn blue. Other symptoms include tightness in the chest, choking, coughing, coughing up blood, dizziness, a drop in blood pressure, rapid pulse rate, shortness of breath and feeling weak. Long-term or frequent exposure to hydrochloric acid leads to tooth erosion, chronic bronchial irritation, chronic coughing, chronic shortness of breath and sometimes a skin rash. These symptoms may occur even if individual incidents of hydrochloric acid exposure are not severe enough to warrant a trip to the hospital.