This article discusses poisoning from swallowing or touching potassium hydroxide or products that contain this chemical.
This article is for information only. Do NOT use it to treat or manage an actual poison exposure. If you or someone you are with has an exposure, call your local emergency number (such as 911), or your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States.
Potassium hydroxide is found in:
- Cuticle removal products
- Drain cleaners
- Leather tanning chemicals
- Caustic potash or potash lye
Note: This list may not be all inclusive.
Symptoms from swallowing potassium hydroxide include:
- Abdominal pain - severe
- Burns in the mouth and throat
- Chest pain
- Mouth pain - severe
- Rapid drop in blood pressure (shock)
- Throat pain - severe
- Throat swelling, which leads to difficulty breathing
- Vomiting, often bloody
Symptoms from getting potassium hydroxide on the skin or in the eyes include:
- Severe pain
- Vision loss
Seek immediate medical help. DO NOT make a person throw up unless told to do so by Poison Control or a health care professional.
If the chemical is on the skin or in the eyes, flush with lots of water for at least 15 minutes.
If the chemical was swallowed, immediately give the person water or milk, unless instructed otherwise by a health care provider.
If the person breathed in the poison, immediately move him or her to fresh air.
Before Calling Emergency
Determine the following information:
- The person's age, weight, and condition
- The name of the product (and ingredients and strengths, if known)
- The time it was swallowed or contacted
- The amount swallowed or contacted
However, DO NOT delay calling for help if this information is not immediately available.
Your local poison center can be reached directly by calling the national toll-free Poison Help hotline (1-800-222-1222) from anywhere in the United States. This hotline number will let you talk to experts in poisoning. They will give you further instructions.
This is a free and confidential service. 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.
What to Expect at the Emergency Room
The health care provider will measure and monitor the person's vital signs, including temperature, pulse, breathing rate, and blood pressure. The person may receive:
- Airway support, including oxygen, breathing tube through the mouth (intubation), and breathing machine (ventilator)
- Blood and urine tests
- Camera down the throat (endoscopy) to see burns in the esophagus and stomach
- Chest x-ray
- EKG (electrocardiogram, or heart tracing)
- Fluids through a vein (IV)
- Medicines to treat symptoms
Note: Activated charcoal does not effectively treat (absorb) sodium hydroxide.
For skin exposure, treatment may include:
- Surgical removal of burned skin (debridement)
- Transfer to a hospital that specializes in burn care
- Washing of the skin (irrigation), possibly every few hours for several days
The person may need to be admitted to a hospital for more treatment. Surgery may be needed if the esophagus, stomach, or intestine have holes (perforation) from the acid.
How well a person does depends on the amount of poison swallowed and how quickly treatment was received. The faster a person gets medical help, the better the chance for recovery.
Swallowing poisons can have severe effects on many parts of the body. Damage to the esophagus and stomach continues to occur for several weeks after the potassium hydroxide was swallowed. Death from complications may occur as long as several months later. Holes (perforation) in the esophagus and stomach may result in serious infections in both the chest and abdominal cavities, which may result in death.
Wax PM, Young A. Caustics. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 153.
Update Date 1/14/2015
Updated by: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.