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Refrigerant poisoning

A refrigerant is a chemical that makes things cold. This article discusses poisoning from sniffing or swallowing such chemicals.

The most common poisoning occurs when people intentionally sniff a type of refrigerant called Freon.

This is for information only and not for use in the treatment or management of an actual poison exposure. If you have an exposure, you should call your local emergency number (such as 911) or the National Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.

Poisonous Ingredient

  • Fluorinated hydrocarbons

Where Found

  • Various refrigerants
  • Some fumigants

Note: This list may not be all-inclusive.

Symptoms

Lungs:

Eyes, ears, nose, and throat:

  • Severe pain in the throat
  • Severe pain or burning in the nose, eyes, ears, lips, or tongue
  • Loss of vision

Stomach and intestines:

  • Severe abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Burns of the esophagus (food pipe)
  • Vomiting blood
  • Blood in the stool

Heart and blood:

  • Irregular heart rhythms
  • Collapse

Skin:

  • Irritation
  • Burn
  • Necrosis (holes) in the skin or underlying tissues

Note: Most symptoms result from breathing in the substance.

Home Care

Seek immediate emergency medical care. Move the person to fresh air. Be careful to avoid being overcome with the fumes while helping someone else.

Contact poison control for further information.

Before Calling Emergency

Determine the following information:

  • The patient's age, weight, and condition
  • The name of the product (ingredients and strengths, if known)
  • The time it was swallowed or inhaled
  • The amount swallowed or inhaled

Poison Control

The National Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222) can be called from anywhere in the United States. This national hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.

This is a free and confidential service. All local poison control centers in the United States use this national number. You should call if you have any questions about poisoning or poison prevention. It does NOT need to be an emergency. You can call for any reason, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Take the container with you to the hospital, if possible.

See: Poison control center - emergency number

What to Expect at the Emergency Room

The health care provider will measure and monitor the patient's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The patient may receive:

  • Intravenous (through the vein) fluids
  • Medicines to treat symptoms
  • Tube through the mouth into the stomach to wash out the stomach (gastric lavage)
  • Endoscopy - camera down the throat to see burns in the esophagus and the stomach
  • Medicine (antidote) to reverse the effect of the poison
  • Washing of the skin (irrigation), perhaps every few hours for several days
  • Skin debridement (surgical removal of burned skin)
  • Breathing tube
  • Oxygen

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a patient does depends on the severity of the poisoning and how quickly medical help was received.

Severe lung damage may occur. Survival past 72 hours usually means the patient will have a complete recovery.

Sniffing Freon is extremely dangerous and can lead to long-term brain damage and sudden death.

Prevention

Keep all poisons in childproof containers, with original labels, and out of the reach of children.

Alternative Names

Coolant poisoning; Freon poisoning; Fluorinated hydrocarbon poisoning; Sudden sniffing death syndrome

References

Wax PM, Beuhler MB. Hydrocarbons and volatile substances. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 180.

Duenas-Laira A. Freon and Other Inhalants. In: Shannon MW, Borron SW, Burns MJ, eds. Haddad and Winchester's Clinical Management of Poisoning and Drug Overdose. 4th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007:chap 95.

Update Date: 10/16/2013

Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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