Caustic burns

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  • Substances that cause damage on contact with body surfaces
  • Degree of injury determined by pH, concentration, volume, duration of contact
  • Acidic agents cause coagulative necrosis
  • Alkaline agents cause liquefactive necrosis (considered more damaging to most tissues)
  • Corrosive agents have reducing, oxidising, denaturing or defatting potential


  • Accepts protons → free hydroxide ion, which easily penetrates tissue → cellular destruction
    • Liquefactive necrosis and protein disruption may allow for deep penetration into surrounding tissues
  • Examples
    • Sodium hydroxide (NaOH), potassium hydroxide (KOH), ammonia (NH3)
    • Found in: bleach, drain openers, oven cleaners, toilet cleaner, hair relaxers


  • Proton donor → free hydrogen ion → cell death and eschar formation, which limits deeper involvement
    • However, due to pylorospasm and pooling of acid, high-grade gastric injuries are common
      • Mortality rate is higher compared to strong alkali ingestions
  • Can be systemically absorbed and → metabolic acidosis, hemolysis, AKI
  • Examples
    • Hydrochloric acid (HCl), hydrofluoric acid (HF), Sulfuric acid (H2SO4)
    • Found in: auto batteries, drain openers, metal cleaners, swimming pool products, rust remover, nail primer

Clinical Features

  • Signs and symptoms are inadequate to predict presence or severity of injury after caustic ingestion [1]
  • Exam eyes and skin (splash and dribble injuries may easily be missed)
  • GI tract injury
    • Dysphagia, odynophagia, epigastric pain, vomiting
  • Laryngotracheal injury
    • Dysphonia, stridor, respiratory distress
    • Occurs via aspiration of caustic or vomitus or inhalation of acidic fumes

Differential Diagnosis

Caustic Burns


  • Clinical diagnosis


Only necessary in patients with significant injury or volume of ingestion


  • CBC
  • Metabolic panel
  • Lactate
  • Calcium level (if Hydrofluoric acid exposure)
  • ECG
    • May show QT-prolongation if hypocalcemic secondary to Hydrofluoric acid
  • APAP/ASA levels if concerned about coingestion (suicidal patients)


First prevent personal exposure to the caustic agent by removing all clothing and decontaminating the patient

Acidic injuries (except Hydrofluoric acid)

May also have non-anion gap acidosis (e.g. HCl)

  • Respond well to copious saline or water irrigation

Alkali injuries

  • May appear superficial but often are deeper with ongoing burn
  • Treat with copious irrigation and local wound debridement to remove residual compound


  • Admit the following:
    • Injuries that cross flexor or extensor surfaces
    • Facial injuries
    • Perineum injuries
    • Partial-thickness injuries >10-15% of BSA
    • All full-thickness burns

See Also


  1. Gaudreault, P. et al. Predictability of esophageal injury from signs and symptoms: a study of caustic ingestion in 378 children. Pediatrics. 1983;71(5):767-770.